“Ignoring the phenomenon of displacement can be a way of avoiding responsibility”

Translated for Cristosal by Meg Mitchell from Iliana Cornejo at El Mundo.

Executive Director, Noah Bullock / Photo Karen Sayre, Eikon Photography

Executive Director, Noah Bullock / Photo Karen Sayre, Eikon Photography

Cristosal’s executive director, Noah Bullock, suggests that the authorities will start creating policies for victim protection when the population demands it. Bullock does not support repressive measures; he doesn’t believe Salvadorans would welcome repression, which gives rise to human rights violations. He urges the government to recognize the phenomenon of forced displacement. Bullock indicates that regardless of which political party is in power, Cristosal will work alongside it to assist victims of forced displacement by violence, both legally and psychologically.

What is your opinion of the government’s characterization of internal mobility as presented in their report?

There has been an advance, an opening, a loosening, in a posture that has been quite rigid. The minister himself acknowledged, in a very honest and sincere way, the lack of government leadership in coordinating a response to the situation. He called for cooperation at higher levels with society and international partners, and he offered his leadership with different sectors in terms of a response, and for me, this is all very positive. What troubles us is the decision to use alternative wording: they did not acknowledge the terminology exactly as it is defined in the international context which provides the guiding principles. So, if the government has decided to use the phrase “human mobility caused by violence,” we want to understand how it understands the responsibilities that come along with this recognition; we want to understand which framework we are working within, which responsibilities we are supporting the government in. We’re lacking a recognition on the part of the government of what we’re going to work on within the framework of internal displacement. I know that it sounds like quibbling over words, but there is an abundance of work on the issue of forced displacement; there are tools, guidelines, specific agreements about how to approach the issue. And not acknowledging how this is defined in international terms could be seen as a way to evade, a little bit, responsibility and to ignore the experience that comes out of the work that has already been done.

Why is it important that the state recognize this phenomenon as forced displacement and not as mobility?

Official state recognition has two functions. One is that starting with an official acknowledgement, the state can begin to take a series of actions to develop a national response, a regulatory, political response, to designate coordinated focus areas. But the second objective of official recognition is to admit the state’s responsibility to raise national awareness of the issue, show solidarity with the victims, and build a consensus around the issue. To use terminology such as “human mobility” is to make comparisons, for example, between the life-or-death decision involved in being displaced by violence, and the decision to move from one house to another. This can be seen as a way to diminish the seriousness of the decision, and it hinders the effectiveness of the responsibility the government takes to build solidarity among its people. In the end, addressing this issue requires everyone’s participation. Those who are displaced find no answers within the country because they are greatly stigmatized and discriminated against. A connection or an association has been made between the victims and the victimizers that alleges that if people were displaced, there had to be a reason for it, and this makes it impossible for the displaced people to be integrated in other communities. This seems to be just a disagreement over definitions, but it’s not. At the root, what happens is that the wording, the communication, has implications for all of society in how public officials and the country’s leaders respond to victims.

Does the state fail to recognize the phenomenon because of fear of the international implications?

Human mobility includes all human movement: slave trafficking, smuggling, economic migration, family reunification, the idea of changing houses. Internal displacement, under global guidelines, refers to involuntary or coercive situations in which people are made vulnerable and risk their lives, where they have suffered violent acts, violations of human rights, or catastrophes. Thus, displacement as it has been understood at the international level, unlike “human mobility,” is a very specific set of conditions regarding risk to people’s lives that calls for the government to assume responsibility for guaranteeing their rights. “Human mobility” doesn’t have these implications, it is more diffuse. It is a way of downplaying the seriousness of the situation displaced people are in. I don’t know if this is the government’s intention, but if they have made this decision, there must be a reason behind it.

You mentioned that the government might be afraid this could cause them political damage or damage in the international arena. I think that, ironically, in the face of a global displacement crisis, there is a great deal of solidarity with Central America right now, that is, support on the international level for the government in crafting a comprehensive response. So, when the government acknowledges that the population is suffering problems of insecurity, it is being a responsible government, and when it asks for the cooperation of various stakeholders, it is demonstrating leadership.

Did the government use the correct methodology in searching for victims of displacement, a sampling method, an extrapolation of data? And what about the questions they asked? As the head of Digestyc [the Department of Statistics and the Census] said: “We went and asked people if they had moved in the last 10 years.”

We are analyzing this methodology. If in the same report, the Minister of Security says 70% of displaced people did not register a complaint, that’s evidence of a lack of confidence in the authorities that exists among the population and specifically among the victims. If we know that answering and cooperating with the government puts the population at risk when talking about their security conditions and their displacement, one has to ask, was that the best way?

Can citizens do anything to scale back the phenomenon of displacement?

I have been in El Salvador for 13 years and sometimes I ask myself which changes have been the most noticeable. In terms of advances, I see that there are many urban centers that have improved in terms of trash collection. And there are new highways. These are populist actions, aren’t they, that have the objective of generating political support, votes. This is a good indicator for the country that shows that there is a government, or that there are politicians, concerned with public opinion up to a certain point. So when public opinion gives them the resounding message that people want a system of protection for victims, it’s possible that the country will get one: when the people begin to show they are opposed to a security policy that is purely repressive, that perpetrates human rights violations, that increases distrust in authorities. Up to this point there has been an assumption, and I think it’s untrue, that the population applauds political repression and that’s what keeps protection systems out of the budget. If the people don’t make something a priority, then the government won’t respond.

Learn more about Cristosal's 2017 Report on Forced Displacement in El Salvador here.

See an infographic of data from the report here.

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Hannah Rose Nelson