'Aggressive' U.S.-Mexico migration policies increasing violence against asylum seekers — MSF

"Aggressive" migration policies imposed by the United States and Mexico are trapping Central American migrants and refugees in a "vicious cycle" of violence, sexual assault, kidnappings and ill treatment from border authorities, a new report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says.

Asylum seekers caught in 'vicious cycle' of violence, sexual assault, kidnappings

Migrants from poor Central American countries — mostly Hondurans — moving toward the United States in hopes of a better life or to escape violence, walk along the highway Mexico. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

"Aggressive" migration policies imposed by the United States and Mexico are trapping Central American migrants and refugees in a "vicious cycle" of violence, sexual assault, kidnappings and ill treatment from border authorities, a new report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says.   

The report, titled No Way Back, found 57.3 per cent of the 480 people interviewed had experienced some kind of violence while traveling in Mexico. Over 39 per cent were violently attacked, while more than 27 per cent were threatened or extorted.

People also described an increase in predatory violence perpetrated against them by criminal organizations operating along one route to the U.S. border.

MSF treated 41 people last September who were in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo under the program known as "remain in Mexico," and that 18 of them, or 44 per cent, reported being kidnapped recently. Another 12 per cent were victims of attempted kidnappings, the report said. 

The following month, the number of those saying they had been kidnapped increased to 75 per cent, according to the report, and some of them were forced to work for their abductors.

"Despite national and international legal obligations requiring states to protect people fleeing violence and persecution, the U.S. government has implemented a series of measures limiting access to asylum," MSF said. 

The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), passed by the Trump administration in January 2019, was identified by the report as a key policy which "further jeopardizes people's health and safety."  MPP forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings. Since its implementation, nearly 60,000 people have been returned to some of the most dangerous border cities in Mexico. 

The White House has said the MPP provides a "safer and more orderly process" that discourages individuals from attempting illegal entry and making false claims to stay in the U.S. 

Members of the Mexican National Guard scuffle with migrants in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Jan. 23. A new Doctors without Borders (MSF) report found many asylum seekers face a 'vicious cycle' of violence, sexual assault, kidnapping and ill treatment from border authorities. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

'No viable way to escape the violence'

However, the MSF report disputes this, saying recent U.S. policies and bilateral agreements reached with Mexico and other regional governments are "effectively dismantling the system to protect refugees and asylum seekers." 

"What we are asking for is the suspension of these immigration policies in Mexico and the United States," Sergio Martin, the head of the Mexican branch of MSF, told reporters on Tuesday. 

It was not highway checkpoints that were forcing migrants to go "sleep in the woods" and expose themselves to illness and organized crime, but "a government that is grabbing people that are vulnerable and is consciously placing them in a place that is very dangerous," Martin said. 

Michael Tam, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said MPP is an "unprecedented and radical departure" from how the U.S. had previously handled asylum cases.

The policy had resulted in tens of thousands of people who had been sent back to Mexico waiting for months, sometimes up to a year, for their fates to be decided, Tam said.

MSF general co-ordinator in Mexico, Sergio Martin, said President Donald Trump needs to 'immediately' suspend the U.S. immigration program that sends asylum seekers to highly dangerous cities in Mexico. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

"This is a program about deterring types of migrants who have certain skin colours from coming to the U.S. and they are doing this by making the process as difficult and as dangerous as possible so people give up." 

Asylum seekers were being forced to wait in extremely dangerous parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, Tam said, describing Tamaulipas state, where large numbers of migrants are turned back, as being a "dangerous conflict zone comparable to Syria or Iraq."

A travel advisory issued by the U.S. government said organized crime activity — including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault — were common along the state's northern border. 

There continued to be the need for public outcry against the program because the Trump administration "should face consequences" for the MPP, whether it was through legislation or the ballot box in November, Tam said.

Situation worsening since 2017

The report said "things have only gotten worse" since 2017 with many thousands becoming mired in a "vicious cycle" when they seek protection but are sent back to the violence and poverty that they fled back home.

Washington has also pressured Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to do more to slow the northward flow. 

U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody in June 2018 near McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Mexican government says its policies aim to ensure safe, regular and orderly migration with strict respect for human rights.

However, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Wednesday that the number of migrants awaiting the outcome of their U.S. immigration cases in Mexico has fallen from 50,000 to about 2,500.

At a news conference, Ebrard said he expected the number of migrants in the "Remain in Mexico" program to remain around current levels.

Asked about the report Tuesday at a news conference in Washington, the acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, disputed the finding that 75 per cent of their patients had been kidnapped after being turned away from the southwest U.S. border.

"That's not what we're hearing and that's not what we're seeing," he said.

Morgan said the U.S. is working with the Mexican government to encourage migrants to go to shelters instead of the makeshift tent cities that have cropped up along the Mexican side of the border.

Many of MSF's patients also reported being held in "terrible conditions" while detained in the U.S., with frigid cells, the lights turned on 24 hours a day, limited limited access to health care, and no adequate food, clothing, or blankets being the norm. 

While in Mexico, MSF teams visiting various detention centres found overcrowding, insufficient medical care, and a lack of adequate resources.

Teams also found migrants with infectious diseases and diarrhea, as well as victims of violence, in particular those with acute mental health needs.

Almost one in four female migrants told MSF they had experienced sexual violence on their journeys.

With file from Reuters and The Associated Press