Children Die in Custody- victims of detention policies on both sides of the border

Migration Station “Siglo XXI” in Tapachula, Chiapas. Photo courtesy of Father Heyman Vasquez, director of the shelter “Nadie es Extranjero” (No one is a Stranger).

May 21, 2019 – The tragic deaths of two Guatemalan children in government custody by the United States and Mexico have reignited the debate surrounding the detention of migrants and asylum-seekers.  These deaths underscore the risk of treating asylum seekers and migrants in prison-like detention centers.  This is especially alarming given the high numbers- 8,569 children who were detained in Mexico in the first quarter of 2019, and 30,000 children who were unaccompanied or with their families and detained by United States Border Patrol between January and April.

The deaths of these children while in US and Mexican migration custody require a response from both governments.

In Mexico, in light of these events, the National Commission for Human Rights issued precautionary measures that called for a comprehensive investigation into the death of a girl who was being held by Mexican immigration authorities, as well as legal support and justice for her family.  The National Institute for Migration’s Citizen Council issued a statement urging government entities to adopt urgent measures to protect the rights of child migrants.

The #RefugeForFamilies network, of which Alianza Americas is a member, vigorously condemned the actions and government shortcomings that resulted in the children dying in custody.  Along with many civil society organizations in the region, we call on the governments of Mexico and the United States to recognize that children, be they asylum seekers or migrants, are first and foremost- children.  As such, we must protect them, care for them, and ground policies in the best interest of the child.

The Mexican government should implement the General Law for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, which prohibits migration detention for minors. Complying with that law, as well as the precedent established by international treaties on the rights of the child should end the detention of child migrants and asylum seeker.  Not one more child should die due to bad practices or inaction by federal authorities.

“Migration Stations” now defacto detention centers in Mexico

During the first quarter of 2019, the National Institute of Migration (INM) detained 31,675 migrants, which has greatly impacted the day-to-day operations of “Estaciones Migratorios”.  These centers have exceeded their capacity, complicating their ability to address and resolve individual cases.  Facing overcrowded conditions, insufficient food, unclear information on immigration case proceedings, limited medical attention, and other gaps of care, groups of detained migrants have begun to protest and confront the detention system.

So far this year there have been several unauthorized departures of migrants from Migration Stations in Chiapas, particularly among migrants from Cuba.  Other reports tell of fires at the center in Oaxaca.  A new center has been constructed in the outskirts of Tapachula, where more than 1,000 people from other regions and continents await safe-conduct permits that will allow them to continue their journey to the northern border.  Given the complexity of the situation, INM has taken action to surround the center in Tapachula, with the support of anti-riot police.  The National Guard has also announced a temporary measure to support perimeter surveillance around the center.

Could Mexico change course and shift away from detention?  

This week, the incumbent Minister of the Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, referred to the possibility of converting detention centers into shelters for migrants, stating on May 14:

“I was speaking with the [Migration] commission about establishing a strategy to see how we can, in the place of temporary shelters, build permanent shelters and convert [existing] detention centers into shelters for migrants and move away from the perception that centers are essentially spaces that deprive people of their freedoms.”

Minister Sanchez Cordero’s essentially recognized the reality of migration detention in Mexico.  Although she did not give more details, her remarks signaled that Mexico is considering a change toward a more open approach.

If Mexico does follow through on this plan, it would represent a significant accomplishment for all the civil society organizations who have called on the Mexican government to re-align its protection policies for migrants and asylum seekers.  Alianza Americas will actively monitor any additional developments.

National Guard further militarizes migration control in Mexico

Since May 18, the Mexican National Guard has assumed a significant role in providing security and controlling migration flows in Chiapas. In response to the unauthorized departures from the Migration Stations, the INM called in the National Guard to set up a perimeter around the detention facility and to assist with monitoring public and private transportation as part of migration control efforts.

The additional militarization of the Mexican southern border region makes it even harder to provide humanitarian assistance to mixed flows of migrants and asylum seekers.  Ramping up migration detention in this context runs counter to both international human rights law and the newly signed Global Migration Compact. A better response would include both humanitarian protections and registration systems for those in transit.

The Lopez Obrador government announced a transformation in Mexican migration and asylum policy when it took office six months ago.  But the current practices look similar to the old ones– with detention and contention putting people at risk, and benefiting the very organized crime rings (now focused on human trafficking) that many are fleeing in the first place.