Over the last decade, the journey from Central America through Mexico has become increasingly dangerous. Although migrants have long been subject to petty corruption and abuse in Mexico, the expansion of organized criminal groups in the country has resulted in criminal networks increasingly engaging in extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes in the territories where they exercise control; migrants have become a lucrative source of income in this context. Many migrants have to pay to pass through cartel-controlled territory, a situation particularly prevalent at the U.S.-Mexico border. During their journey, migrants are frequently victims of kidnappings and ransom demands, human trafficking, sexual assault, robbery, and even murder. Local and federal agencies are involved in these crimes, including the Federal Police and the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM), the lead agencies involved in Mexico’s migration enforcement efforts.
Although the Mexican government has pursued a restrictive migration policy for several years, since July 2014—at the urging of the United States—the government of Mexico has intensified its enforcement activities through the Southern Border Program (Programa Frontera Sur). The government says that this program aims to “protect and safeguard the human rights of migrants who enter and travel through Mexico, as well as to establish order at international crossings in order to increase development and security in the region.”
On the ground, the Southern Border Program has meant: the deployment of additional INM agents to southern Mexico; the participation of federal, state, and municipal police forces in migration enforcement; an increase in raids on areas where migrants are known to stay and travel; efforts to prohibit migrants from riding on the train; and increased security checkpoints, particularly in the southern states. As WOLA noted in its November 2015 border report, far from deterring migrants from making the journey north, Mexico’s migration crackdown has resulted in changes in how migrants are traveling. With decreased possibilities of boarding the train, migrants and smugglers are now relying on different and dangerous routes and modes of transportation, including by foot, vehicle, and boat. These routes expose migrants to new vulnerabilities given their isolation and difficulty. In July 2016, three Salvadoran children drowned off the coast of Chiapas when the boat they were traveling in sank due to heavy rains.
Increased enforcement has also resulted in a rise in crimes and human rights violations against migrants. The migrant shelter in Saltillo, Frontera con Justicia, in the northern state of Coahuila, documented more crimes against migrants- kidnapping, extortion, robbery and other abuses- in the first seven months of 2016 than in all of 2015. The shelter La 72 in Tenosique, Tabasco in southern Mexico has denounced eight cases of mass kidnappings in 2016 and alleged that agents from Mexico’s Federal Police participated in some of the events. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) saw a 53 percent increase in complaints of human rights violations perpetrated by INM agents in 2015 as compared to 2014. In October 2016, the Commission released a report on the grossly inadequate conditions within several migrant detention centers in Mexico. It also released a report on the situation of migrant children in Mexico, highlighting that the Commission had received 881 complaints of human rights violations against migrant children in the past six years.
While Mexico has increased the detention and deportation of migrants and potential refugees, these enforcement efforts have not been paired with additional efforts to screen people for protection concerns. Mexico’s 2011 Law on Refugees, Complementary Protections, and Political Asylum includes a broad refugee definition that grants asylum to individuals persecuted or who have fear of persecution due to race, gender, religion, nationality, or belonging to a specific political or social group, it also recognizes a right to asylum based on “generalized violence; foreign aggression; internal conflicts; massive violation of human rights; and other circumstances leading to a serious disturbance of public order.”
These later categories in particular could be applied to individuals fleeing violence in Central America. Nonetheless, the number of people recognized as refugees or qualifying for some form of protection in Mexico is shockingly low when compared with the total number of apprehensions. In 2015, Mexico apprehended 190,366 foreigners, including 171,934 Central Americans. In that same year, only 3,423 people requested protection in Mexico and of these, only 32 percent were granted refugee status or complementary protection by Mexico’s Commission to Assist Migrants (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR). Another 1,375 migrants who were victims of crime in Mexico were granted a humanitarian visa. Between January and September 2016, 5,944 people requested asylum, a significant increase over 2015, and of these, about 35 percent received asylum (1,746) or complementary protection (326).
In its 2013 report on the situation of migrants in Mexico, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that 68 percent of individuals in the Siglo XXI Migration Station in Tapachula (a migrant detention center) were unaware of their right to seek protection. This problem is compounded by the lack of access to legal representation: there are few pro-bono immigration lawyers in Mexico, and civil society organizations involved in representing refugees have difficulty entering migrant detention centers. Potential refugees who are detained and decide to request asylum remain in detention while their claim is being processed; a procedure that is supposed to take up to 45 business days but which can be extended for multiple reasons. The prison-like and often overcrowded conditions in the centers, along with reports of abuse, poor food, lack of adequate medical care, among others, cause many potential refugees to drop their claims and be deported.
Apart from the disincentives to requesting protection in Mexico, COMAR only recently signed an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to increase its staffing beyond the 15 agents it had to handle cases, adding 29 additional staff members to its offices in Mexico City, Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz. The impact of this additional staffing will be measurable in the coming months. While UNHCR support is important, it should be noted that in spite of the increase in apprehensions in Mexico, COMAR’s budget grew by only five percent between 2014 and 2015, when it was a mere 27 million pesos (less than $16 million USD). The proposed budget for COMAR for 2017 drops to 25.4 million pesos.
As the U.S. and Mexican governments continue to take steps to address Central American migration, they should consider the following actions to prioritize the protection of migrants in Mexico: