A tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: No Nationalism, No Globalism, only Humanitarianism
On December 10th we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt and her team of international scholars with differing legal and social backgrounds, whose work was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948 and subsequently adopted by all future UN member states. It is considered a common standard of achievements for all people and nations defining fundamental human rights to be universally pursued and protected.
This blog is dedicated to the humanitarian workers of the world for their efforts to directly implement the human rights values of the Declaration in working to disarm our planet. One such organization is the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, established in Taiwan in 1966 by Venerable Dharma Master Cheng Yen, and subsequently in California in 1989 with 82 offices across the US. Tzu Chi’s missions focus on giving financial and material aid to the needy and inspiring love and humanity to both givers and receivers.
Their Executive Vice President and Executive Director of the Charity Department, Debra Boudreaux, has graciously shared her report on recent humanitarian support to the migrant caravan at shelters in Tijuana near the US-Mexican Border. (Reference to particular Articles from the Declaration relating to her remarks have been added).
Who is in this caravan? Why do they want to flee their own countries? What are they looking for? How can they leave behind their original lives? Where can they go? When can they join the USA? These questions came to mind as we tried to search for the answers. (Articles 1, 2, 8, 10, 30)
On September 26, 2018, Tzu Chi volunteers made their first visit to the Las Caritas shelter in Tijuana and personally witnessed the living conditions, interacting with residents with the help of translators. In a shelter setting, the time was right to remind us that there is no nationalism; there is no globalism; there is only humanitarianism.
Climbing up 18 uneven steps and walking into the first make-shift dormitory, we saw old mattresses lined up next to each other on the floor. Each used mattress served one woman and two to three children under 9 years of age. The approximate 200 square yard space was packed with more than 45 families. With a dim ceiling light, we saw residents wrapped up in used blankets full of small holes. Their faces showed hope, uncertainty of their future, and appreciation for a place to stay that was dry. As we moved into the second make-shift dormitory next to the one wash room, we met three families and a pregnant woman in an area of 15 square yards. There was a closet stocked with rice and beans in bulk. Beyond was a so-called living room, approximately 25 square yards, with one television, corners filled with stacks of back packs and bags, clothing, shoes, and blankets with stains. Nine children were watching cartoons. We could occasionally hear some whispering and laughing.
Moving into the kitchen, there were four stoves, shelves having less than ten canned goods, some bags with old bread. The freezer stored three to four tomatoes, a couple chilies and nothing else.
Stepping down to the street level was another make-shift living quarter approximately 120 square yards, with 15 families and three children crawling on an old mattress. Atop a plastic toy gun was a smart phone for watching cartoons. Volunteers questioned the presence of this kind of toy for display in a shelter. The wall contained a written list of the names of the occupants.
All the living quarters were well organized and clean, with occasional pieces of clothing having fallen from the stacks. The air quality was not good with so many residents especially at night.
Moving back upstairs to the “living room”, used bed sheets and plastic tarps covered the open corridor for eating and gathering for weekend church services. One old washing machine was next to the restroom. There was only one toilet and one shower for the whole complex.
The head of this shelter, Leticia, said, “this property belongs to the local government and has been vacant for some time.” The church had been asked by the local municipality to run this shelter. It could hold a maximum of 300 migrants.
Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador said they were fleeing poverty, persecution, and gang violence. The caravan was estimated to include more than 7,200 persons at the time of this visit, and more were expected in the following week, potentially raising the number to over 10,000.
Leticia added, “Some of the migrants started out on their journey from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, travelling across Guatemala and into southern Mexico.” In fact, in April 1,500 migrants had reached the U.S. border; 250 had applied for asylum. US border inspectors were processing only about 100 asylum claims a day at Tijuana’s main crossing to San Diego. (Article 14) Asylum seekers registered their names in a tattered notebook managed by migrants themselves that had more than 3,000 names even before the caravan arrived. But according to the record so far only three had received a legal status from the U.S. authorities. (Article 7, 21)
The migrants continued towards the border in open defiance of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. (Article 13, 14) Recently the U.S. embassy in Honduras released a video urging people to turn back or face detention.
There were around 16 temporary shelters around this border point. The living quarters for each one were packed with migrants, some run by faith based organizations, others by the local community residents who opened their homes to host them. Some were in remote mountain churches run by the clergy, others were in warehouse zoning areas for the migrants with tents.
Witnessing firsthand the shelters’ living condition, Tzu Chi volunteers decided to focus on the WASH program: Water, Affordable Sanitation, and Hygiene, key public health issues within international development and the focus of Sustainable Development Goal  (SDG) #6. Implementation consisted of five thematic areas: (1) delivering up-to date portable beds to replace the old and stained mattresses, (2) donating water buckets for saving clean water for cooking (3) providing personal hygiene and household cleaning items, and (4) providing lidded trash barrels for diapers et. al. to reduce flies and mosquitos. Education was needed to ensure proper use but this was accomplished with smiles and hugs. The children were innocent victims of this situation, but they learned quickly. They were hungry, eager to learn and attend school if possible. Volunteers could sense the urgent needs.
On the second visit on October 6th, volunteers brought stationery, notebooks, crayons, pencil boxes, and story books which were eagerly accepted and used immediately. When Tzu Chi Tijuana School Principal Garcia visited the shelter, she gathered the children together to read a story to them and noticed a seven-year-old boy who could not read and showed his frustration. In speaking with the boy’s mother, she recognized his need for an eye exam and most likely glasses. Arrangements were made to see an optometrist as soon as possible. This show of love created positive energy within the residents. Even though it was a make-shift shelter, the volunteers were actively implementing the 4th SDG to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” On October 8th, the young boy – now with his new glasses – greeted the volunteers with a big smile and an appreciative “Gracias”. It was a beautiful moment and reassured us: there is no nationalism, there is no globalism, there is only humanitarianism. Children need to have a chance to learn how to read and write. (Article 26)
Every two weeks the volunteers visited the shelters and delivered more WASH materials: portable stationery supplies, and library books. They collaborated with the local supermarkets El Florido and Calimax and Roma Pharmacy to provide fresh vegetables and fruits as well as medical supplies, working to address SDG 1 to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” In addition, local private entrepreneurs joined in the humanitarian partnership movement to support SDG 17.
Honduras has a murder rate of 43 per 100,000. In addition to the violence, migrants in the caravan have mentioned poor economic prospects as a motivator for their departures. (Article 23, 25) Per capita income hovers around $120/month in Honduras where the World Bank says two out of three people live in poverty. The migrants’ long stay in Tijuana has raised concerns about the ability of the border city of more than 1.6 million to handle the influx.
Local responses have been mixed: The Honduran Ambassador in Mexico issued a statement on October 13th asking his country migrants to return home. The Tijuana Mayor called the migrants’ arrival an “avalanche” that the city is ill-prepared to handle, calculating that they will be in Tijuana for at least six months as they wait to file asylum claims. He has appealed to the federal government and United Nations for more assistance to cope with the influx. Mexico’s interior ministry said that the federal government was flying in food and blankets for the Tijuana migrants. City officials converted a municipal gymnasium and recreational complex into a shelter to keep migrants out of public spaces. The city’s privately-run shelters have a maximum capacity of 700 families; the municipal complex can hold up to 3,000 families. However, the shelter situation has been changing daily.
There were protests as well. One group called the event an “invasion” and worried their taxes would be increased. They shouted: “We don’t want you in Tijuana” and called for background checks for criminal records. A smaller group had assembled nearby with signs of support. One teacher said the protesters didn’t represent her way of thinking as she held a sign saying: “Childhood has no borders.” Tzu Chi volunteers could see the humanitarian spirit in those participants.
Tzu Chi Buddhism promotes good WASH practices with hygiene kits, and tangible support for children’s education. Other needs such as job skill training and trash disposal were the next areas to be addressed on site. The humanitarian effort continues.