The Cost of Capitulation: How Mexico’s Treatment of Refugees and Migrants Affects Its Image and Soft Power

Forced displacement and migration have come to occupy an increasingly more pronounced space in international and domestic politics, the media, and in the global public imaginary. 71 million people in 2019 were in situations of forced displacement and recent reports show that 3.5% of the world population–some 272 million individuals–are considered to be international migrants. Perhaps more importantly, these numbers are projected to increase as the effects of climate change force more to leave their homes in search of safety and security; in fact, the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 140 million people in three densely populated regions–sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia–will be forced to migrate. These numbers don’t take into account conflict, war, or economic displacement, all of which are sure to continue in the decades to come, likely impelled or exacerbated by climate change.

The ways that countries have responded to the arrival of refugees and migrants are wide-ranging, with some opening their doors and facilitating resettlement and integration and others retreating into nationalistic and xenophobic discourses that instrumentalize a fabricated sense of fear of the other. While important (albeit incremental) advances have been made in international and regional forums to address forced displacement and migration, like the Global Compact on Refugees (2018), the Global Pact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (2018) and the Global Refugee Forum (2019), many countries with significant financial and institutional resources have fallen short in their promises to support refugees and migrants; in fact, since 2016 there has been a steady decline in refugees resettled worldwide, despite the fact that 2018 marked the highest recorded number of refugees since the aftermath of World War II.

The positions taken and discourses adopted by countries regarding refugees and migrants affect the image that they project to the international community of countries, organizations, the media, and individuals. Countries where refugees and migrants have been loudly demonized, rejected and excluded–like the United States, Hungary, the United Kingdom and most recently Brazil–send messages of elitism, parochialism and an unwillingness to collaborate with the international community to address one of the most pressing crises of contemporary history. On the other hand, some countries have adopted proactive measures to host/resettle refugees and have spearheaded efforts to create spaces of international collaboration, like Canada, Germany, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya. These countries diffuse messages of openness, generosity, equity and cooperation to the international community, although rising xenophobia in some of these countries has jeopardized and mangled the images projected.

One way to analyze how countries’ responses to migrants and refugees affect their image and standing in the international community is by examining the concept of soft power, which refers to the immaterial sources of power generated and exercised by countries that are often unquantifiable, like culture, values, institutions, innovation and international collaboration. Unlike military or economic power, which some scholars have argued are increasingly subordinate in an economically interdependent world that is less prone to war and large-scale invasions, soft power relies on consistency between external discourse and internal practice, respect for human rights and international institutions, support for causes that have resonance and significance beyond just the West and Global North, and the cultivation of a “persuasive national narrative” that is rooted in history and consistent with contemporary realities.

Though Dr. Joseph S. Nye Jr., former president of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is responsible for coining the term soft power, it has been re-interpreted by various scholars and expanded beyond a purely North American context. For example, Vuving has argued that soft power can be measured by a country’s display of benignity, competence and charisma while Ding has examined the relationship between soft power and human rights in the context of China. For their part, Adamson and Tsourapas have explored the relationship between migration, diplomacy and soft power and in the context of Mexico, Villanueva Rivas et al. have surveyed how soft power is generated and exercised by non-hegemonic countries that don’t look to expand or export their social or economic systems, but instead seek legitimacy and influence within international and regional institutions.

Recent scholarship has established the centrality of the international media and non-government organizations in the creation and distribution of soft power, an idea that Dr. Nye alluded to himself when arguing that soft power is most effective when it is not diffused as propaganda and thus interpreted as inauthentic or embellished. The persistent (and increasing) ingress of migration into the international media and NGO space from multiple and sometimes conflicting ideological perspectives underscores the importance of these actors in discussions surrounding migration.

In short, soft power as an analytical concept–and as a strategy of foreign policy–continues to attract academic and popular attention, and there appears to be a nexus between hot-button issues such as migration and the generation (or loss) of soft power by those countries who are outspoken about migration in both discourse and policy. Following the logic of Nye and others, in order for a country’s discourse or policies regarding migration to generate soft power, they would have to be seen by the international community as genuine (not propagandistic or artificial), respectful of human rights (not tainted by exaggerated national security concerns), rooted in international cooperation, and conditioned by the principles of justice and equity. An added bonus would be a position as a protagonist in international negotiations surrounding migration, a historical narrative of openness to migrants and refugees, and monetary donations to the various international organizations that support refugees and migrants.

The Case of Mexico

Mexico presents itself as a unique case study for the examination of the relationship between soft power and migration. For one, it has a long history of offering refuge and asylum to some of the world’s most persecuted, including Jews before (and to a lesser extent during) World War II, Spanish Republican refugees, political refugees from South American countries, Guatemalans in the 1980s, American leftists during McCarthyism, as well as a handful of high-profile and controversial individuals who had been rejected in other countries, such as Leon Trotsky, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and, most recently, Evo Morales. Additionally, Mexico is a country of emigration, with nearly 12 million of its nationals living abroad. It is because of the vast and highly influential (and in some cases vulnerable) Mexican diaspora that Mexico has also branded itself as an advocate for human mobility in the international community; in strategic terms, this makes sense, as it is in Mexico’s interest to support a global agenda that foregrounds the human rights of migrants and refugees, in order to more adequately protect Mexicans living abroad.

However, and most significantly, Mexico has also recently become a destination country for thousands of refugees from all around the world who might have previously sought asylum in the U.S. or Canada. Although the foreign-born population in Mexico still doesn’t exceed 1% of its native-born population, the amount of refugees seeking asylum in Mexico has increased by over 5,000% between 2013 and 2019. This, in tandem with a flurry of media attention spurred primarily by President Donald Trump’s nativist obsession with migration, has put a spotlight on Mexico and its responses to the arrival of refugees and migrants on its southern border.

Gaps Between Discourse and Practice

Mexico boasts a notably progressive assemblage of laws, policies, discourses and reflections when it comes to refugees and migrants that ostensibly prioritizes human rights over national security concerns. Though it has been a protagonist in a number of international forums that have sought to protect the rights of migrants and refugees, there are significant gaps between discourse and practice that have been highlighted by international NGOs and the international media. These gaps combine and interact with the international media and NGOs and display on the world stage a country where migrants and refugees suffer violence, discrimination, and severe violations of human rights. Amnesty International has reported cases of refugees being sent back to violence and persecution in their home countries, with the Mexican government failing to inform 75% about their right to seek asylum in Mexico; la Red de Documentacion de las Organizaciones Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (REDODEM) has reported that 23.1% of reported crimes against migrants and refugees in Mexico involved a Mexican official; and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports that crimes against migrants and refugees go almost entirely unaddressed.

The COMAR, the agency commissioned to protect the human rights of refugees in Mexico, saw only a meager increase in its budget from 2019 to 2020 despite an exponential increase in applications for refugees status while the INM, which operates under a national security based approach to migration, saw an increase in its budget that was six times the entire budget of COMAR.

Análisis relacionados

In response to pressure from the U.S., Mexico also elected to deploy thousands of National Guard members to its southern and northern borders, none of whom had received the human rights training required by law. These structural deficiencies and ad hoc militarization strategies have been widely covered in the international media, and my research has shown that after an initially lukewarm but positive response by the international community to the AMLO administration’s humanitarian visa program, media attention has portrayed Mexico in negative terms: as paying for Trump’s unpopular border wall, as unable and unwilling to provide humanitarian support for refugees and migrants, as unforthcoming, and as increasingly militaristic and violent.

Soft Power as Resistance: Forging a Camino Forward

The intense pressure levied by the Trump administration against Mexico has, in effect, damaged Mexico’s image–and thus soft power–by forcing it to appease Washington’s demands and violate its own commendable refugee and migration laws. Though pressure from the U.S. is certain to continue, Mexico would do well to consider using soft power as a form of resistance against the military and economic power of the United States. By acting in accordance with the human rights framework enshrined in its domestic laws, Mexico could exhibit consistency between its external discourse and internal practice, operate with justice and equity, cooperate internationally, and in so doing, construct a narrative of a country committed to the protection of refugees and migrants, even in the face of pressure from a (globally unpopular) superpower like the United States.

This could take the form of increasing COMAR’s budget, further reducing state corruption and impunity, addressing due process concerns, expanding meager integration programs for resettled refugees, providing humanitarian visas that permit documented transit, politically resisting the failed Migrant Protection Protocols, improving conditions in temporary detention centers while expanding alternatives to detention, and providing sensibility training to address the needs of LGBTQ+ refugees and migrants, non-Spanish speakers, indigenous groups, women, children, and racial minorities. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but these measures would contribute to the diffusion of positive images by the international media, and earn praise from international NGOs, who would in turn provide credibility and support. A seal of approval from international NGOs–whose assessments are often cited by the international media–carries much more weight than a country’s partisan (and vacant) claims of benevolence and advocacy for refugees and migrants, as is the case in Mexico; in the words of Dr. Nye: “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

To conclude, it can be argued that refusing to capitulate to the abhorrent migration policies and intense pressure of the United States is in the national interest of Mexico, considering the millions of Mexicans living in the U.S. and the negative imagery generated by its capitulation thus far to U.S. demands; but, more importantly, it would make Mexico a safer place for migrants and refugees fleeing violence and economic disenfranchisement and lend credibility–on a global scale–to the moral efficacy and strategic functionality of a migration system based in human rights and not a nativist understanding of national security. In a more long-term sense, Mexico’s association with the canon of countries revered for their acceptance of refugees and migrants in times of global strife–a canon to which Mexico has historically belonged–and disassociation from those who use migrants, refugees and other marginalized groups as fodder for projects of domination, racism and xenophobia, will help set it up for a future of moral legitimacy, granting it deeper access to the international institutions that will increasingly dictate the currents of global politics.

Alexander Voisine

Alumno de la Maestría en Relaciones Internacionales de la UNAM y egresado de Temple University en Filadelfia, PA donde estudió Estudios Globales y Letras Hispánicas. Sus áreas de investigación son la migración forzada, la política exterior, el poder suave, y las personas migrantes y refugiadas LGBTTTI+. becario Fulbright García-Robles en México. Ha colaborado con varias ONGs en Estados Unidos que apoyan personas migrantes y refugiadas, últimamente Project Citizenship en Boston, MA y HIAS Pennsylvania en Filadelfia, PA. Voluntario en el equipo de integración de Casa Refugiados en la CDMX.


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