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Chicago, April 1 2019 — Over the past few days, a new group has begun its journey toward the US. This latest group is different from previous caravans in that it is comprised of a more diverse group of nationalities, including Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans. There are causes for concern about the conditions they face, and the response from both the Mexican state and civil society.
Reported to be about 1500 people when they departed Tapachula on March 23, the latest caravan has swelled to about 2500 people. The vast majority are family groups, many of which include children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities, according to the civil society observers group, “Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el Sureste Mexicano” that has been accompanying the group.
In the last days of March, groups report a large increase in the number of Cubans in Chiapas, as many as 4.000 by local estimates. On March 15, a group of about 300 cubans demonstrated at the National Migration Institute offices to protest what the reported as long delays and corruption in emitting migration transit permits that would allow them to move freely through Mexico on their journey to the United States. The protesters claimed that INAMI staff were charging between US$300 and $700 to issue same-day permits. The permits are free, but can take as long as 2 months to issue, especially if the person does not have legal representation. Payments to INM or private lawyers (often at the recommendation of INM staff) are the only way to speed the process, and lower the cost of waiting months in Tapachula.
The response of the López Obrador administration to these and other allegations of corruption has been to close the offending offices. In Tapachula, the INM announced it would temporarily suspend the issuance of humanitarian permits at its Tapachula office until further notice. Eliminating the option of a humanitarian permit or safe-conduct permit at this popular border crossing, means that large numbers of people are crossing into Mexico without authorization, and are therefore unable to work, and vulnerable to apprehension and deportation. This puts people at significantly increased risk. Human rights defenders are calling on the government to make the humanitarian visa card available as people cross into Mexico, through a transparent, agile process that doesn’t restrict other rights.
On March 29, about 500 people were still on the INAMI international bridge in Ciudad Hidalgo, awaiting processing of their migration paperwork. Upon learning that the delay might stretch into May, many of them have abandoned the process. Observers report a similar situation affecting another 700 people who are stuck betweenTuzantán and Huixtla on the Chiapas southern border.
Human rights groups monitoring the latest caravans report that the group has asked local officials for bus transport along certain stretches of the route. The goal of this request was to increase security, but it appears to have had the opposite result, due to the lack of bus capacity for all those in the group. Fearful of getting split apart or having to prioritize some travelers over others, the group decided to reject the bus offer, leading them to remain, exhausted, by the side of the highway. Because they are not reaching municipal humanitarian resources (potable water, bathrooms) that were installed closer to towns, the group has suffered serious health problems, an especially serious problem for the most vulnerable migrants.
Farther along the route, but still in the state of Chiapas, authorities offered some 1,500 to 1,800 people who were staying a the Acacoyahua sport stadium the option of requesting a Humanitarian Protection card, but the application had to be completed some 32 Kilometers away in Mapastepec, and they had to get there on their own.
Humanitarian attention remains a serious challenge, one that requires coordination among local, state, and federal authorities. Civil society organizations are working hard at all levels and must be brought into a coordinated response. Civil society organizations, particularly those who are closest to the caravans and constantly monitoring conditions, continue to call for international protections for those with humanitarian needs.
Apprehensions and Detentions
In the outskirts of Tapachula, agents of the National Immigration Institute and other security forces maintain a large presence. Migration enforcement has intensified and many people who were attempting to join the caravans have been detained. This selective enforcement raises anxiety and distrust, and appears to be punishing those who are seeking the relative safety of traveling with a group.
The US government has expanded its so-called “protocols for migrant protection” in which asylum-seekers are sent back to Mexico to await a hearing. This program launched in Tijuana and has now been expanded to Mexicali. This policy violates the well-established legal principle of non-refoulement, by returning people to dangerous conditions. It will significantly undermine the right to asylum, and denying asylum-seekers due process, because legal representation provided by civil society organizations is much harder to obtain in Mexico.
On March 13, the Mexican government announced it would launch an operation “búsqueda en vida” (“find them alive”) for the approximately 25 people who were taken off a bus in Tamaulipas, and have not been heard from since. We are following this case that illustrates the fragility of guarantees of personal integrity, live, and liberty for asylum-seekers in transit through Mexico.