The Trump administration is going to great lengths to make Mexico assume the US’s legal responsibility to consider Central Americans’ asylum claims. In turn, the Mexican government has offered immigrants the opportunity to seek refuge there.
But the problem is that Mexico can be just as dangerous as the countries they are fleeing. Furthermore, the US’s strategy is legally problematic: Neither US law nor international commitments require Central Americans to apply for asylum in Mexico.
Tijuana, where the bulk of the migrant caravan is waiting, was the world’s fifth most violent city in 2017, according to a ranking (link in Spanish) by Mexican civil society group Seguridad, Justicia y Paz. Its murder rate is higher than in any city in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, where most asylum seekers at the border come from.
Immigrants are also vulnerable to other types of crimes, such as robbery and extortion. After evaluating conditions in Mexico, the UN’s Committee on Migrant Workers said last year it was worried about “the significant increase in crimes against migrants and in the risks encountered the entire length of the way through Mexican territory.” Meanwhile, surveys conducted by Doctors Without Borders in 2015 and 2016 found more than 30% of immigrant women in transit through Mexico were sexually abused.
Like the US, Mexico has seen the number of asylum applications balloon in recent years.
But Mexican immigration authorities are even less prepared than the US to process them. The Mexican agency charged with helping refugees, COMAR by its Spanish acronym, only has four offices, and none near the border.
Earlier this year, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission warned of the “possible collapse” (Spanish) of the country’s refugee protection system as COMAR’s backlog grew to 60% of applications. It also identified “situations of risk of torture and abuse” in immigrant detention centers, which it found had no adequate living conditions or access to medical attention.
The unrest at the border is hitting at a particularly unstable time politically in Mexico, just a few days before president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office. Donald Trump reportedly reached a deal with AMLO’s incoming administration under which immigrants would wait in Mexico while their asylum requests are heard, though Mexican officials later denied it.
Meanwhile, the US has been limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed through ports of entry, even closing the country’s busiest border crossing at one point. On Sunday, the US fired tear gas at immigrants families waiting to enter the US on the Mexican side of the border.
The longer waits at the border are likely already exposing the immigrants to danger, advocates say. “As the backlog of migrants in border towns like Tijuana continues to grow, a major concern is how this vulnerable population will become more susceptible to criminal groups and corrupt officials who’ve long preyed on migrants,” said Maureen Meyer, from human-rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, in a statement.
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