A family arrives at an immigration detention center in Tapachula, Mexico, May 29, 2019.
A clash with Mexican national police on August 27 shows just how frustrated migrants in Mexico’s border towns are. For the past month, hundreds of African migrants have protested their situation in Tapachula, Chiapas, a Mexican town near the border with Guatemala. On August 29, they organized the Assembly of African Migrants in Tapachula and released a statement of their demands.
The Assembly, made up of more than 3,000 migrants of African origin, argues that they were forced to leave their countries of origin by political, ideological, or religious persecution, or for belonging to a particular social group—all considered reasons to seek asylum under international law. The would-be asylum seekers hail from a list of nations including Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Eritrea, Angola, and Burkina Faso. But changes in Mexican migration policy have barred migrants from moving farther north to the U.S. or Canada, where they want to seek asylum.
The Mexican government is refusing to issue the “humanitarian visas” necessary to travel north legally. Without them, African migrants must leave Mexico through its southern border, says Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The situation has essentially immobilized these migrants—many of whom are women and children, all of whom require humanitarian aid.
The policy change is part of a larger effort on the part of the Mexican government to relieve the pressure points in its migration system. As of last week, the number of (largely Central American) migrants to the United States forced to return to Mexico to wait for their claims to be processed as part of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols has reached nearly 40,000. These asylum seekers are waiting in Mexican towns on the U.S. border, many of which are on the list of cities for which the U.S. has issued travel warnings instructing Americans not to visit. To address the needs of these largely homeless and jobless migrants, the Mexican government has struggled to provide necessary humanitarian assistance and protections. Mexico, ostensibly to relieve the pressure on its northern cities, has even bused migrants from its northern border with the U.S. south to towns near its border with Guatemala. The International Organization for Migration has even started busing and flying migrants back to their Central American countries of origin. In both cases, migrant rights’ activists have objected to the screening process, arguing that migrants are not clearly informed about the consequences.
This border build-up coincides with a new source of migration: This year, more African migrants are choosing to seek asylum in the U.S. and Canada, rather than make the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. Their journey involves flying into Brazil or Ecuador, and then making their way north through Central America and Mexico to file for asylum in the U.S. or Canada. One asylum seeker I interviewed last year in Canada told me it took him three years to reach Canada after leaving his native Eritrea.
Some of the migrants from Haiti and African countries like Eritrea and Cameroon have also been forced by Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy to remain on Mexico’s northern borders, in cities like Tijuana.
In the Assembly’s statement, the migrants detained in Tapachula wrote that they traversed the Darién jungle, and crossed rivers, mountains, and valleys. “We have slept in the middle of the mud, we have gone hungry and drank rainwater to survive,” they wrote. “We have seen bodies of migrant brothers on the road, dead of exhaustion, or drowned in the rivers.” The migrants say they faced threats by authorities in Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and now Mexico—where they have been forced to remain because of American and Mexican policies. And they note the well-documented threats to migrants traveling through Mexico, where they are targeted for violence and vulnerable to extortion.
The Assembly’s declaration followed days of protests outside the local immigration detention center, Siglo XXI, which is run by Mexico’s National Institute of Migration. Mexico’s detention centers have long been known for their poor conditions, but more recently the centers have become even more overcrowded. The Assembly reported that migrants did not have translation services and were forced to sign documents they did not understand.
The migrants’ protests, says WOLA’s Maureen Meyer, have drawn considerable international attention. That may be one reason why the police attacked not only the protesters at the August 27 demonstration, but also, the Assembly charged, the journalists there to cover the protest.
The purgatory in which the African migrants have landed exemplifies what sociologist David FitzGerald characterizes as the U.S. “externalizing” its southern border and outsourcing its immigration policies. And though the conditions for migrants in Tapachula and other Mexican cities appear untenable, no solution to their plight is anywhere in sight.