Migrants and Asylum Seekers abandoned or trapped by Government Responses to Pandemic

April 16, 2020 — The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the ability of governments to manage human mobility in times of crisis.  Sadly, the governments of the United States, Mexico and Central America have largely failed that test, betraying a shocking lack of humanity and willingness to ignore their own legal norms, as well as to violate international  human rights accords. While many people can stay at home to limit transmission of the virus, millions of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in transit around the world do not have that luxury.  Add to that the many who are detained, including unaccompanied children awaiting deportation, and the people who are trapped in a limbo of misery due to policies that block asylum, or stuck in a shelter or refugee camp on a border, hoping for the chance to request international protection.  Many more are jailed in immigration detention, living the prolonged pain of deportation proceedings, or simply abandoned, when closed borders make deportation impossible. 


Governments across the region have not grasped the simple reality that enforcing aggressive anti-migration policies in a time of pandemic will cause thousands of people to get infected, and puts everyone’s health at risk. Measures are urgently needed to help stop the spread of the virus, such as ending migration detention.  Deportations should be immediately suspended, given the risks of infection both during the trip and after the person is returned to the home country.  Rather than taking these common-sense measures, the United States continues the shameful practice of extorting and threatening its neighbors to accept deportees, knowingly over-burdening the already weak and fragile health systems in Central America.   

"Deported by the U.S., abandoned in Mexico, and trapped at closed borders. Animal Político article, published on April 12.

Abandoned in Mexico 

The pandemic also lays bare the low priority that Mexico has put on taking care of and protecting migrants in its territory.  The government ignored overcrowded conditions in the Matamoros migrant encampment, where at least 2,500 people are at high risk for COVID-19 infection. Rather than seeking solutions that leave migrants and local communities protected, the government has simply started shutting down shelters, such as the Casa del Migrante in Piedras Negras, in Coahuila.


The emergency pandemic response from the López Obrador administration leaves many migrants and asylum seekers out in the cold, with few options–and their numbers are alarmingly high.  The Trump Administration has adopted an emergency measure since March 21, through which the US summarily returns to Mexico all asylum seekers that it apprehends, without even giving them a deportation hearing.  Mexico continues to honor that agreement with the United States, despite the risks it entails.  Just last month, 6,306 people were returned, and estimates are that more than ten thousand have been sent to Mexico since the COVID-19 pandemic started.  To be clear, these are not just Mexican citizens, they can be any foreign-born person who entered the US via Mexico; the majority are Central Americans. 


For its part, Mexico is transporting migrants that it detains in the northern part of the country toward its southern border with Guatemala.  However, with the Guatemalan border closed, last week migration authorities simply dropped off 480 people from Honduras and El Salvador in Tapachula, with no documents or economic support. The migrants were reportedly left in the streets, at the mercy of organized crime and xenophobic attacks.   


The pandemic has proved adept at jumping borders, but the government response has yet to catch up.  There is an urgent need for a regional response that includes migrants and offers humanitarian and medical attention for migrants and asylum-seekers. This need is particularly urgent in the camps where asylum-seekers are living in overcrowded conditions and in migration detention centers.  With borders closed, governments also need to work together to create safe options for people who want to return to their home countries and are unable to do so. 

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