The United States puts migrants and asylum seekers at greater risk during the pandemic

Refugee Camp in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. January 14, 2020. Photo by Vic Hinterlang / Shutterstock.

May 28, 2020 – Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exodus of people in search of asylum was a result of multiple factors including violence, political instability, poverty, lack of decent jobs, environmental degradation as a consequence of climate change and more. These factors continue and are exacerbated by the economic crisis. Migration has not stopped, it has only been made more difficult, less safe and more inhumane by the pandemic.


Since March, hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been left in limbo in the Central America-Mexico-United States corridor due to border closures and agency shutdowns.  These people are then forced into living conditions that put them at extreme risk for contracting the virus. A similar situation is taking place on the southern border of Central America. In Panama, a group of more than 1,000 people are stuck in crowded and remote conditions as they wait for the border with Colombia to re-open.


Ironically, the United States and Mexico have continued deportations despite the closure of borders and the halt on immigration procedures. Continuing to deport individuals completely ignores the health risks that come with the deportation process and the fact that most state agencies are closed. Even children are being deported, a shocking violation of international norms that has caused UNICEF to weigh in with warnings. In the US, a respected pediatrician urged the Trump administration to reconsider, noting the many negative effects of deporting minors and separating them from their families.


Guatemala has tried to push back against the U.S. by suspending incoming flights bringing people being deported, but has had little success. Despite a mid-March announcement that the flights would be suspended, they have continued to arrive. On April 14, the government assured that 75% of the people who arrived on a flight deported from the U.S. were infected with COVID-19. The president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, described one of these flights as a “cursed flight“, increasing the stigma against people who are deported.


On the other hand, El Salvador has largely complied with U.S demands.  All persons entering the country are subjected to a mandatory quarantine, which has been described by human rights experts as “arbitrary detention” given the inadequate conditions that allow a high risk of contagion. Detainees have been repressed by police after pushing back against these conditions. When questioned by one of its officers, the Security Minister allowed that the treatment of deportees is “somewhat complicated”.


In Honduras, official data reveals that in March and April a total of 5,686 Hondurans arrived in the country, after having been deported. Just as in El Salvador, people who are deported are sent to quarantine centers where they face precarious conditions.  Many have sought to avoid the horrors of quarantine, only to face rejection in their communities of origin, where people fear contagion.  


Mexico is both deporting people and receiving its own citizens as deportees from the United States. It prefers to refer to Mexican deportees as “returnees”, but the euphemism does not hide the fact that they are not returning to their homeland voluntarily but are forced to return by U.S. authorities. The National Institute of Migration reported that the U.S. deported 57,000 people of Mexican nationality in the first quarter of the year. Recently, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations agreed to a proposal by the US government to carry out some of the deportations by airline flights to Mexico City, instead of over land at the border between the two countries. In Tijuana and Matamoros, overcrowded shelters are full of asylum seekers who have been stuck there as a direct result of US anti-immigrant policies such as “Remain in Mexico.” The shelters struggle to comply with public health recommendations such as social distancing,  and have had to leave hundreds of migrants on the street. Doctors Without Borders has teamed up with local civil society in Tijuana to offer medical care in a sports stadium.


Despite the risk of contagion, the Trump Administration has conditioned the provision of urgently needed medical supplies, including respirators, on compliance with asylum agreements with the U.S. that force countries in Northern Central America to continue to receive deported nationals. While Honduras and El Salvador received those donations, Guatemala was excluded.


In a crisis like the current pandemic, rich nations have an ethical duty to support poor nations. In the case of the United States, that duty is also a practical one. In order to protect public health across the region, deportations should cease and the US should care for people seeking international protection. By doing the opposite, the U.S. reveals an ugly and uncaring face and ultimately exacerbates the drivers of forced dislocation and movement across borders.

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