Members of a fact-finding delegation cross a river that divides Mexico from Guatemala. 6 members of the delegation are seated across two black inner tubes connected by a wooden slab. 3 members of the delegation stand on the raft, one with a video camera, one with a stick to steer the raft. A bridge is visible in the distance, and on the shore there are concrete stairs and many people congregated under open pavilions.
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Death Traps for Refugees in Southern Mexico

From December 16-19, 2019, IRAP participated in a fact-finding delegation to investigate the situation of refugees in Mexico, which was organized by Alianza Américas and Refuge for Families. Mariko Hirose, IRAP’s Litigation Director, joined the delegation on behalf of IRAP. These are her impressions:

On the hot December day that the delegation visited the Suchiate River in southern Mexico, the water barely reached knee-high at its deepest point. Local traders ferried sacks of food and cases of beer from one bank to another in balsas of wooden planks tied to floating tubes. Families doing their holiday shopping waded across, children holding the hands of their parents and women lifting the hems of their skirts. This is how the local economy has always worked here, we were told.

Locals crossing the Suchiate River. 

The delegation crossing the river on balsas.

With this peaceful scene in front of me, it was hard to believe that the river forms the invisible border between Mexico and Guatemala that became the focus of international attention over a year ago when so-called “caravans” of Central American refugees arrived at the crossing. Yet that is why I was there with the delegation, to understand how the last year of U.S. immigration policies has affected Mexico, especially at its southern border in Chiapas.

Impact of U.S. Policies on Mexico’s Southern Border

While much attention has focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. immigration policies, and Mexican policies adopted as a result of U.S. pressure, have created death traps throughout Mexico for refugees fleeing persecution at home. Two kinds of refugees crowd the streets of Tapachula — or Trap-achula, a name coined by one of the human rights leaders we met with — a city in Chiapas located twenty or so miles from the river. One group is refugees who have crossed the border from Guatemala and find themselves unable to move north through Mexico because of increased militarization and lack of humanitarian transit visas, even for those who are seeking asylum. Some of these refugees will apply for asylum in Mexico, but will have to wait for months for Mexico’s under-resourced and overwhelmed asylum agency, Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR), to decide their case. COMAR has just 27 staff right now dedicated to adjudicating 44,000 asylum requests received around the country.

Another group is refugees who previously reached the U.S. border and are waiting their turn for a chance at asylum in the United States in the notorious “Remain in Mexico” program (also called the Migrant Protection Protocols). This U.S. policy, first implemented in January 2019, forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration hearings. Because of the extremely dangerous conditions at the northern border, including systematic kidnappings, these asylum seekers have headed back south, at times aided by buses funded by the Mexican government. It remains unclear whether Mexico will allow these asylum seekers to transit through the country again to pursue their cases when their hearing dates for Remain in Mexico arrive. 

Within these groups are men, women, and young children from Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. They have already endured harrowing ordeals to get to Tapachula and carry with them the trauma of their past and their journeys, but this is not where they will find the safe home that they seek. Here, in one of the poorest states in Mexico, there is not enough shelter or work. A staff member at a local services organization estimated that 20-25% of their clients live on the streets despite the danger, because they lack other options; every week they hear about a refugee who has been killed by a gang member pursuing them.

And despite all this, people keep coming because the situation is unbearable at home; when we returned from our river visit to Tapachula, two young men from Honduras who had just crossed the river were waiting outside a shelter hoping to find a meal and a bed. Those who cannot find a safe home in southern Mexico will try to continue north however they can, including by avoiding safer routes that are more heavily policed and relying on criminal networks. This should come as no surprise to anyone: it is only the fundamental human instinct to protect yourself and your family by doing whatever you can do to escape death.

Paths Forward

What do we do about this northward migration driven by basic human instincts? In the short term, the civil society groups doing work on the ground, including by providing social services, offering legal support, and advocating on behalf of the refugees, need more of our support. On the trip we met with a number of organizations — Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, A.C., a legal and social services organization, and Albergue Jesús El Buen Pastor Del Pobre y Migrante A.C. and Albergue Belén, both shelters — that are doing incredible work to support refugees on limited resources.

The delegation meeting with leaders at Fray Matías

Over the longer term, the global community must commit to creating and maintaining safe passage for people who are fleeing their homes. Those who face threats to their safety back home should not have to take dangerous journeys through multiple countries only to be trapped in a place far from home that is still unsafe. For example, the Central American Minors program that the Trump Administration ended was created for this exact reason: it allowed qualified, at-risk children in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to board a plane from their home country to join their parents who are already living in safe U.S. communities. Through our lawsuit, S.A. v. Trump, IRAP forced the U.S. government to complete the processing of children in the final stages of the Central American Minors parole program; but the program remains closed to new applicants. Re-starting the program, and ensuring efficient processing, would be one way for the United States to ease the unsustainable situation in southern Mexico and contribute to creating a safer American continent.

As the delegation was leaving the banks of the Suchiate River, I found a mural that reads: “Con la inclusión y protección de las personas migrantes ganamos todos.” (With the inclusion and protection of migrants, we all win.) We cannot achieve safety and stability in the United States through walls or military presence when people are fleeing our neighboring countries for their lives, crossing rivers and jungles and deserts. We all win when everyone has a safe home and a safe way to get there.

A mural on the banks of the Suchiate River.

The delegation at the cross erected for migrants on the banks of the Suchiate River.