Clay Boggs, WOLA, Carolina Carreño and Diana Martinez, Sin Fronteras, IAP *
Children continue to flee El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and Mexico is deporting them in massive numbers. Between October 2014 and April 2015, Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central Americans, more than the total number of Central Americans stopped by Border Patrol along the United States’ southern border in the same period.
Why are Central Americans fleeing? It is certainly true that some leave because lack of opportunity, but the high levels of violence throughout Central America are an undeniable factor. Honduras and El Salvador are now the most violent countries in the world. Honduras has a homicide rate of 68 homicides per 100,000 people. And violence in El Salvador is increasing: May 2015 saw 635 homicides, representing the highest figure since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.
In 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) conducted a survey of two hundred unaccompanied children detained in Mexico City and Chiapas, and found that nearly half (48.6 percent) could have qualified for international protection.
Many Central Americans see no other choice but to leave their country in order to preserve their lives and freedom. The following testimony, given during a workshop sponsored by the Mexican civil society organization Sin Fronteras, is similar to many stories told by migrants who leave the so-called “Northern Triangle” region of Central America:
… I had a small business in my country, but the gangs asked me for money. A year ago they kidnapped my brother and killed other family members because I didn’t want to give them money. One day they put a marijuana cigarette in my son’s mouth in a threatening manner, that day I decided to leave my country.
Meanwhile, Doctors without Borders, another organization working with migrants in transit in Mexico, says that among their patients, 42 percent of Salvadorans and 32 percent of Hondurans reveal that their decision to leave was related to the pervasive violence in their countries of origin.
If so many people are crossing Mexico, and many of them (including at least half of the unaccompanied children) are possible asylum-seekers, it can be said that Mexico now has within its borders a rather significant refugee population.
There are moments in the past when Mexico distinguished itself as a host country for significant numbers of refugees from different countries in the world, especially from Spain during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s; from Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina when these countries were devastated by coups and dictatorships in the 1970s; and even from Central America during the civil wars in the 1980s. But in the current crisis, the government of Mexico has behaved differently: in 2014 (the most recent period for which Mexico’s refugee agency provides statistics), Mexico only recognized 451 people as refugees, including 413 from the Northern Triangle, according to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR). For reasons that are not self-evident, the Ministry of the Interior (Secretario de Gobernación, SEGOB) gives a much lower figure, 195, for the number of refugees documented as permanent residents in 2014. The government deported 107,814 people during the same period.
There are several reasons why Mexico has so many potential refugees and so few recognized refugees. For one, few identify themselves as potential refugees during detention and apply for asylum. In 2014, only 2,137 people applied for asylum in Mexico, including 1,769 from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. There are certainly many other potential refugees who do not seek asylum. Why do they so rarely apply?
In many cases, migrants do not know their rights. During visits to detention centers in Palenque, Chiapas and Villahermosa, Tabasco, Sin Fronteras found that detainees are unaware of the right to asylum, or if they are aware of their rights, they prefer not to initiate proceedings because to do so would require remaining in detention for several weeks until COMAR issued a resolution. If COMAR denies the request and the asylum seeker wants to file an appeal, the asylum seeker would have to remain in detention until the appeal is resolved.
In the detention center in Chiapas, staff from Sin Fronteras met with a Salvadoran woman who was traveling with her 8-year-old son. After the interview, in which she explained that she was seeking refugee status, she hugged the Sin Fronteras facilitator as if they were a lifeboat and cried, because she had to decide between remaining in detention and being sent back to El Salvador. In the detention center in Tabasco, Sin Fronteras heard testimony that authorities failed to provide detainees with information about their rights, or even the reasons for detention or the procedures they would face.
Another problem that Sin Fronteras has documented in these detention centers is that even those asylum seekers who know their rights and decide to apply for asylum from COMAR are persuaded, by COMAR authorities, not to apply.
What can be done to improve the situation? On the one hand, the Mexican government should give greater priority to strengthening COMAR: if the government is going to double its deportations then it must also increase its protection capacity. However, COMAR’s growth has been insufficient. COMAR grew by only five percent between 2014 and 2015, and the agency only has fifteen agents to carry out asylum interviews throughout the country.
On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, the Mexican government needs to demonstrate, through its National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) and COMAR, that Mexico is again ready to assume its historic role as a refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution, and that its priority is identifying and protecting vulnerable people, not deporting and deterring them.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, must recognize that, if it is to keep giving equipment and training to Mexico to secure its border, it also needs to ensure that Mexico has the capacity and political will to fulfill its international obligations and protect those in need of protection.
*Sin Fronteras, IAP is a nonprofit organization working for the promotion, protection, and defense of the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, and stateless persons in Mexico.
* Correction: this post originally stated, mistakenly, that 2,137 people applied for asylum in Mexico in 2013. It has been corrected to state that 2,137 applied for asylum in Mexico in 2014.