A court ruling on forced displacement
In 2017 I wrote a post about forced internal displacement which starts with this true story:
The message was slipped under the door of their tiny home during the night. Leave the community where they lived for years within 48 hours. The note did not spell out what would happen if the family did not leave. It wasn't necessary. Too many people had been killed in their community already. The family grabbed their belongings and left under cover of darkness. Another family to add to the total of those forcibly displaced by gang violence in El Salvador.
It was a tale similar to the accounts of tens of thousands displaced from their homes within El Salvador. This story did not have a happy ending. Earlier this year, gangs murdered in gruesome fashion one of the boys in the family near the community where they had relocated. If the gangs want to find you and kill you in El Salvador, they will.
That story is played out time and again in El Salvador. Heather Gies, writing in al Jazeera describes the phenomenon:
Internal forced displacement has been on the rise in El Salvador in recent years.
There were more than 296,000 new displacements due to conflict and violence in El Salvador in 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
According to Cristosal, children and youth are particularly vulnerable.
Leading factors heightening displacement include gang threats, the murder or attempted murder of a family member, and extortion. Advocates also highlight forced recruitment of children as young as eight years old as gang lookouts and police abuses as increasingly significant causes of displacement.
Fearing reprisal, many victims remain silent.
"It's complicated because lack of trust in the state means people don't report," says Monti of Cristosal. "This makes it much more difficult to give [victims] dignified humanitarian support."
High impunity rates for violent crime plague the country, while the United Nations has found police forces responsible for "extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force" in their bid to combat the gangs.
Despite the obviousness of the internal displacement phenomenon to just about everyone in El Salvador, the official policy of the Salvadoran government remains denial. To acknowledge the problem would be to acknowledge the ongoing failures of security policy and to accept responsibility for caring for these internal refugees.
The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court, however, is ordering the government to take action. In a case involving several families displaced by violence, the Constitutional Chamber issued a ruling on July 13 regarding the obligation of the Salvadoran government to attend to the victims.
The human rights organization Cristosal advocated for the victims before the court and described the ruling:
In a monumental ruling on July 13, El Salvador’s Supreme Court formally charged the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the Attorney General’s Office, and the National Civil Police with violating citizens’ Constitutional rights by failing to protect and assist victims of forced internal displacement caused by violence. The Court gave the Salvadoran government six months to officially recognize forced displacement by violence in the country, design special legislation and policies for the protection and assistance of victims, and make victims of displacement a priority in the national budget.
“This makes visible the hundreds of thousands of victims of violence in El Salvador and focuses national attention on creating programs and policies to bring them justice,” says Julio Magaña, Strategic Litigation Coordinator at the human rights organization Cristosal.
In the context of harsh U.S. “zero-tolerance” deterrent methods aimed largely at Central Americans on the southern border of the United States, this ruling is also a model for a comprehensive approach to forced migration throughout the region.
“The ruling affirms that protection and access to justice is a constitutional right of all Salvadorans, specifically the internally displaced,” says Cristosal Executive Director Noah Bullock. “The court is forcing the state to change the purely repressive approach of the justice and security system and make victims a priority.”A ruling by the court is good, but we will have to wait and see whether it makes any real difference in the actions of the security forces, the justice system, and government ministries who can care for El Salvador's internal refugees.