WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


2 Jun 2022 | Publication

Struggling to Survive: Plight of Asylum Seekers at Mexico’s Southern Border Highlights Need for Regional Action

Seeking asylum is never an easy process. Families, children, and adults forced to flee their homes experience the trauma of violence or other life-threatening circumstances at their place of origin, the rupture of leaving their past lives behind, and the uncertainty of where and how to find refuge. But in recent years, this already difficult path has become increasingly fraught with obstacles for the rising population of protection-seeking people arriving at Mexico’s southern border, the majority of whom make their asylum claims in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas.

The new WOLA report, Struggling to Survive: the Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico, follows the route of asylum seekers arriving in Tapachula. It draws on a March 2022 visit during which we conducted field documentation and interviews with asylum seekers, government officials, UN agencies, and civil society organizations providing services to migrants. The report highlights abuses, arbitrary treatment, and steep obstacles faced by asylum seekers at each step of their process.

“I don’t wish this on anyone,” an asylum seeker told WOLA staff during our visit. Interviewees described having to abandon their homes due to causes including government persecution and gang violence, only to face extortion or detention by Mexican migration agents and security forces as soon as they sought to enter Mexico. As exemplified in these stories, protection-seeking migrants are generally unable to request asylum at Mexico’s ports of entry, and those who manage to do so face a high risk of detention—for various amounts of time—by migration authorities. This undue barrier to accessing asylum forces already vulnerable people to cross between ports and attempt to avoid checkpoints and detention as they make their way to the offices of Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados).

Read the new WOLA report Struggling to Survive: the Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico.

Once people manage to file asylum claims, they find themselves navigating backlogged legal processes with wait times of many months, during which Mexican administrative rules require them to remain in the state where they filed their case (in this case, Chiapas). In practice, authorities seek to keep them contained in the city of Tapachula itself. Often unable to access employment opportunities, asylum seekers in Tapachula face a day-to-day struggle to make a living, access needed services, and avoid abuses by authorities: what multiple actors in Tapachula called “a system to wear people down.”

In 2021, Mexico received over 130,000 asylum requests, the third-highest number of any country in the world, with approximately 90,000 of these filed in Tapachula. Mexico’s asylum system was not designed with these figures in mind: the number of asylum claims received in 2021 is more than 100 times greater than that received just eight years ago in 2013. The skyrocketing caseload has not been met with adequate resources, leading to the extended backlogs. In addition to large numbers of people in need of international protection, Mexican migration authorities’ reticence to facilitate access to other legal pathways has also had the effect of channeling people into Mexico’s asylum system as though it were the only option to seek a legal status in the country, creating an even more acute situation.

Prolonged case processing times, combined with the Mexican government’s efforts to contain asylum seekers in a single city, have produced a humanitarian crisis for the protection-seeking population in Tapachula, who frequently lack access to affordable housing, face racial and other discrimination, and are sometimes arbitrarily detained even if they possess valid migration documents. These untenable conditions led large groups to try to leave the city in 2021, with mixed results ranging from improvised relocation efforts by authorities to repression by migration agents and security forces. This has led Tapachula to become notorious as the “prison city” for migrants and asylum seekers.

As of today, longstanding and emerging causes of displacement in the region—from violence to repression to climate disasters to unrelenting poverty—continue to drive high levels of human mobility. In the first four months of 2022, COMAR had received 40,026 asylum requests, led by nationals of Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. In other words, while efforts to alleviate the root causes of migration south of Mexico are ongoing, in the short- and medium-term, the region will continue to see high numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Mexico.

In this context, Mexico’s government should take decisive steps to ensure that vulnerable migrants can access protection in safe and dignified living conditions. These include:

  • Guarantee that asylum-seeking families, children, and adults arriving at Mexico’s southern border can request protection at official ports of entry. Arriving asylum seekers should immediately receive documents indicating that they have permission to be in Mexico, avoiding scenarios in which people are forced to cross irregularly and make their way to COMAR.
  • End the practice of containing asylum seekers in Tapachula. The government should promptly allow asylum seekers to move to different states in order to find work, reunite with family, and otherwise begin integration processes.
  • End detention of asylum seekers except where compelling reasons exist for such a measure, as foreseen in international law.
  • Provide humanitarian and other visas as foreseen in Mexican law. The National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) should make humanitarian and other visas available in a prompt manner to those who qualify for them based on any of the grounds set out in domestic law.
  • Maximize integration and resettlement programs. This crucial component of the migration and refugee process is the subject of ongoing and pilot programs developed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in coordination with Mexican authorities.
  • Increase government funding and support for COMAR. Despite receiving the third highest number of asylum requests worldwide in 2021, COMAR’s budget for 2022 remains essentially unchanged.
  • Hold Mexican migration agents and security forces accountable for abuses against migrants and asylum seekers. Mexican and international civil society organizations have documented widespread abuses against migrants and asylum seekers in southern Mexico by INM agents, members of the military and National Guard, and police forces.

The situation in Tapachula exemplifies a much broader regional truth: policies that seek to physically block the paths of migrants and asylum seekers—including border militarization, failure to allow asylum seekers to present at ports of entry, and enforcement strategies based primarily on detention and expulsion—increase human suffering, but do not sustainably or constructively address forced migration. The U.S. government’s use or support of such strategies in recent years has negatively affected migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights not only at the U.S. border but also in Mexico, as people on the move are forced onto hidden paths and placed at greater risk of harm.

Indeed, the dire conditions facing asylum seekers in Mexico do not occur in a vacuum. Since March 2020, ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border have been closed to asylum seekers under Title 42, unlawfully trapping thousands of protection-seeking migrants in Mexico. Mexico’s growing list of visa requirements for South American countries, imposed in response to increasing arrivals at the U.S. border, forces more people to migrate by land through Central America to Mexico’s southern border, an often-perilous route. Meanwhile, Mexico’s armed forces continue to play a central role in migration enforcement, a policy that was sharply reinforced in 2019 in response to U.S. pressure and has led to serious abuses against migrants. In this context, despite the U.S. government’s significant financial support for Mexico’s asylum system (in particular, through funding for UNHCR) and the development in 2021 of the Collaborative Migration Management Strategy for the region, the overall influence of enforcement-based U.S. migration policies cuts against the safety and rights of migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico.

The Mexican, U.S., and other governments of the region must correct course and work together to prioritize access to protection and solutions for forcibly displaced populations. The Ninth Summit of the Americas, to be held between June 6 and 10 in Los Angeles, California, will be a crucial forum for advancing agreements in this area. WOLA and other civil society organizations have prepared a set of guidelines on migration management in the run-up to the Summit. In light of our findings in Mexico and throughout the hemisphere, we call on the region’s governments to reverse inhumane and counterproductive border policies and put families and individuals at the center of a sustainable, protection-centered, and rights-respecting response to high migration levels.