Central Americans Fleeing Violence Seek Refuge in Mexico

This story was updated on Sept. 21 with developments at the UN meetings on refugees. The headline was revised to clarify that Mexico receives, rather than encourages, migrants. This version corrects the spelling to Mark Manly, not Manley, and corrects attribution to Perrine LeClerc, not Manly, in the paragraph that begins “Mexico was long seen…”

TAPACHULA, Mexico — The line outside the United Nations refugee office here starts to form at 5 most mornings, nearly two hours before the sun begins to heat up the streets. By 9 a.m., some 50 men, women and children lean against the whitewashed wall of the compound, prepared to wait, sometimes the whole day, to meet with someone who could help them stay in the country.

Asylum-seeker Bairon Ochoa, 22, fled death threats in Honduras. Photo by Katie Schlechter

Asylum-seeker Bairon Ochoa, 22, fled death threats in Honduras. Photo by Katie Schlechter

The majority of them are asylum-seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras who have  crossed the border from Guatemala, a 30 minute drive from Tapachula. The number of asylum-seekers has risen more than five-fold between 2012 and 2015, from 20,900 to 109,800 people, and an increasing share of them have made Mexico, not the United States, their final destination.

The UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration on refugees and migrants following a summit meeting Monday on the issue.  The declaration aims to strengthen the protections established by the 1951 Refugee Convention and acknowledges that developing nations are hosting the vast majority of refugees.

While much of the UN discussion focused on the 4.8 million people who have fled war in Syria, representatives of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States also held talks on increasing collaboration and responsibility-sharing in their region. In his remarks to the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on Tuesday, President Barack Obama mentioned the violence in Central America and the consequent increase in migration into Mexico.

At the same time, a few blocks away, the Center for Migration Studies hosted a “shadow summit” on the US response to the Central American refugee crisis. At the shadow summit, some speakers applauded Obama’s decision to host the leaders’ summit while others criticized the US response as focusing more on keeping Central American migrants out of the United States than on protecting asylum-seekers.

“In the last years, Mexico has mostly been seen as a transit country for migrants, going to the US, searching for a better life,” says Perrine LeClerc, the head of Tapachula’s field office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She says that the situation in Mexico has now reached “refugee crisis” proportions, due to increasing violence in what is known as the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. UN figures show Honduras had the world’s highest homicide rate in 2014, closely followed by El Salvador, which tops the list for homicides committed against children.

Gang violence throughout the region has been a major driver of this mass migration, but police officials also have been implicated in the killings of adults and youth, some affiliated with gangs and others not. El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office is investigating 119 possible extrajudicial executions by state agents dating back to 2013.

The ombudsman, David Morales, told the Spanish news agency EFE in July, “We have identified clearly a pattern of violence that in El Salvador is known as extermination violence … for purposes of social cleansing.”

Many of the individuals and families who wait in Tapachula, desperate for assistance from UNHCR, were caught in the crossfire. LeClerc said that, by June, the number of Central Americans seeking asylum in Mexico had already surpassed last year’s total, and that the 2016 total new asylum cases in Mexico was expected to more than double last year’s.

At shortly after 9 on a July morning, a rustling behind the door of the compound prompted families seated on the sidewalk to jump up and rush the entrance. The whitewashed steel inner door swung open, revealing a private security guard with a clipboard. He kept the bright blue barred gate closed as he began to address the group clamoring to get close to the doorway and the waiting room beyond.

One baby fussed loudly as the guard began to read the names of lucky appointment holders from the list on his clipboard. Those who didn’t already have appointments for that day were told they could schedule one for the following month.

A UN staff member appeared and patiently explained to the crowd that, if she and her colleagues managed to get through all of their scheduled meetings, a few people without appointments might be squeezed in before the office closed for the day. But with limited space in the waiting room, that would mean continuing the vigil in the shrinking shade outside of the UNHCR compound without the guarantee of being ushered through the blue gate.

The scene outside the field office repeats each day. One staff member lamented her team’s inability to see every person who showed. Mark Manly, a UNHCR representative in Mexico City, says that the country’s position between Central America and the United States makes it “one of the most important migration corridors in the world.”

Mexico was long seen as a place through which migrants pass on their way to the United States in search of jobs. But LeClerc says that the dynamics in Mexico have been changing quickly. Many migrants are now moving for different reasons: “At this stage, they are not really interested in going to the US; they are just willing to find protection and live in a safe place.”

The distinction is important, because refugees are people fleeing life-threatening situations in their home countries who have been granted protection status under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. But not everyone who flees a dangerous situation knows that she may qualify for asylum – an issue UNHCR is combatting with public awareness campaigns throughout Mexico.

When a migrant does know this, chooses to seek asylum and is granted refugee status under this convention, she is entitled to basic rights in the host country. In Mexico, these rights include most of those possessed by its citizens, such as the ability to travel freely within the country, and access to education and healthcare.

UNHCR sought to increase awareness about the escalating crisis in Central America and Mexico through a roundtable meeting it held in San Jose, Costa Rica, in July. Representatives from nine countries, including Mexico, the United States, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, attended.

Manly says that countries in the region must work together to address the crisis. “There’s not always an understanding among all states that they also have a role to play when it comes to ensuring that refugees enjoy protection,” he said.

Documents from the meeting reveal that representatives at the roundtable discussed the need for host countries to provide basic services to asylum-seekers but also acknowledged that those nations should not have to handle the crisis alone. Mexico, for example, cannot meet the needs of the increasing number of asylum seekers without considerable financial support from the international community.

Manly said the San Jose meetings helped to clear up many of his concerns about “responsibility sharing” in the region. “There are a number of governments which are prepared to make concrete commitments,” he said. “We’re optimistic that we’ll see a number of concrete things coming out of these two summits in September,” he added, referring to the UN meetings this week.

In the days before the summits, Lucy Hovil, a researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative didn’t feel as optimistic about the UN meetings as Manly did. “It’s good that it’s happening, but it feels like there’s going to be an awful lot of promises made, probably not that much consensus reached and almost no action as the result,” she said.

Hovil said such agreements are positive, but it’s difficult to hold states accountable for their commitments. She was also concerned discussions about the root causes in the nations from which people are fleeing would not dig deeply into the causes.

“That approach tends to be you throw in a bit more development money and give people increased access to livelihoods and then you stop the migration flow,” she said. “So discussions around root causes aren’t really root causes; they’re very much discussions (on) trying to squash the symptoms.”

Last November, UNHCR opened another office near Mexico’s southern border in Tenosique, Tabasco. Like Tapachula to it’s south, Tenosique hosts thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers who recently entered from Guatemala.

Bairon Ochoa, 22, arrived in Tenosique from Honduras in May. Back home he was a camera assistant for a local news program. After he and his crew filmed a crime scene, he began to receive death threats from a local gang that did not want the footage broadcast.

Ochoa decided to apply for refugee status in Tenosique. Asylum claims in Mexico usually take 45 working days to process. During the wait, claimants are required to show up at the local immigration or refugee aid office to prove that they have not left the state where they filed their application.

While awaiting a decision on his claim, Ochoa stays at a large migrant shelter in Tenosique. He has a roof over his head and three basic meals a day, but living at the shelter and not knowing what the future holds is not easy.

“You lose hope, you get stressed, and there is nothing to do,” he said. “You miss your family, your country.”

Some asylum-seekers are unable to handle the long waiting game. It’s not uncommon for individuals in Ochoa’s situation to become overwhelmed one day and decide to keep moving, crossing state lines and losing their asylum bids in the process.

“I think the hardest part is what I’m going through now,” said Ochoa, “just waiting for the days to go by.”

The UNHCR offices in Tenosique and Tapachula work to support asylum-seekers by providing them with funds to rent apartments and cover other basic living costs when they can’t stay in the shelters. But, as more people cross Mexico’s southern border, these offices will need more financial support to meet the growing demand for services.

“If the situation continues deteriorating in the Central American countries,” said UNHCR’s LeClerc, “we should be ready for worse.”