Pressure from counterproductive, deterrence-based U.S. policies has made migrants in Mexico even more vulnerable to attacks by criminal groups and human rights violations by authorities. Meanwhile, people in need of protection may never have a real chance to seek asylum in Mexico, or may be forced to abandon their claims due to prolonged detention and other obstacles.
There is a rights-respecting way forward to protect migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico, and to ensure orderly, safe migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ensuring the safety of migrants and asylum seekers as they transit through—or choose to stay—in Mexico means: working with the Mexican government to strengthen its asylum system, ending support for militarized border enforcement strategies, and partnering with Mexico to dismantle mechanisms of violence against migrants.
Asylum requests in Mexico increased by more than 700 percent between 2016 and 2019. More than 125,000 people have requested protection in Mexico since President López Obrador took office in December 2018, including over 13,500 in the first two months of 2021. While Mexico has improved its reception and processing capacity, further budget and staffing increases are needed to enable Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, to respond to current levels of demand.
Unless an asylum seeker is able to reach a COMAR office without being apprehended by a migration agent, requesting asylum in Mexico also includes spending time in Mexico’s migrant detention system, where poor conditions drive many people to drop their claims in order to be released. A program to provide alternatives to detention, started in 2016, is not being fully implemented by Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). Another issue is that many migrants who are detained by the INM are not adequately informed of their right to seek protection in the first place.
Expanding the country’s asylum system is critical so that asylum seekers’ claims are fairly and promptly processed and those who choose to stay are able to settle in to their new lives in Mexico. In addition to supporting Mexico in its efforts to achieve this goal and helping to fund the crucial work of the UNHCR in Mexico, the U.S. government should work with its Mexican counterparts to provide access to protection in the United States for individuals who would face persecution in Mexico, as well as unaccompanied children when the best interest determination is that they should be united with their U.S.-based family members.
In recent years, Mexico has deployed thousands of militarized National Guard troops, as well as the military itself, to its southern border region, largely under pressure from the U.S. government to stem migration from Central America. This dehumanizing approach—in which governments treat migrants as a flow to be blocked, rather than as human beings in need of protection—heightens migrants’ vulnerability to refoulement and human rights abuses at the hands of security forces.It also pushes migrants towards clandestine routes and into the hands of organized crime.
Mexico should reorient its southern border presence by demilitarizing border enforcement and including the permanent presence of COMAR agents to receive asylum seekers. The Mexican government should also undertake serious efforts to strengthen controls on the National Migration Institute to root out corruption and abusive practices within the agency.
The U.S. government should support such efforts and clearly communicate that it does not wish for Mexico to “block” migration, but rather to be a partner in responding to migration in a rights-respecting way, putting protection at the center of the agenda.
In addition to abuses by authorities, migrants in transit through Mexico continue to suffer assault, rape, kidnapping, and extortion at the hands of organized crime or common criminals, who have been known to work in collusion or with the tolerance of Mexican officials.
As of December 2020, Human Rights First had compiled a list of over 1,300 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other attacks against asylum-seekers in Mexico. The January 2021 killing of 16 Guatemalan migrants and three other victims, attributed to Mexican state police, is another indication of the severity of violence facing migrants. While this last, high-profile case led to arrests, the vast majority of crimes against migrants and asylum seekers remain in impunity.
U.S. authorities should work with their counterparts in Mexico and Central America to prevent and address transnational crimes against migrants, including through increased collaboration on prosecutions to reduce impunity in these cases.