Earlier this year, the United States government enacted the Migrant Protection Protocols—new rules for asylum seekers that force them to await their US asylum hearings in Mexico. The policy, along with a myriad of new restrictions blocking entry and access to asylum processes in the US, has left thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers stranded in violent border cities in Mexico such as Reynosa, Mexicali, and Nuevo Laredo.
In these cities there are only a small number of shelters where migrants and asylum seekers can find refuge, and many of them are already at capacity. This has forced people to live on the street, with little money and no access to medical or legal assistance. They fear for their safety and their future seems uncertain.
"At this point along the border, in Nuevo Laredo, kidnapping is the order of the day,” said Felipe Reyes, an MSF psychologist assisting migrants, asylum seekers, and deported Mexicans in two shelters in the city, La Casa Amar and Casa del Migrante Nazaret. “For that reason, migrants don’t walk in the street."
MSF provides medical, psychological, and social assistance to hundreds of people at various shelters along the US-Mexico border.
"It is a very difficult situation for the people I talk with,” said Reyes. “They have to deal with sadness, depression, feelings of guilt and suicidal thoughts. They have sleep disorders and suffer from anxiety because the waiting lists to start asylum procedures are very long and there is no certainty of refuge for them.”
Even as the US government declares a "state of emergency” at the border with Mexico, the actual crisis is the terrible violence and inhumane treatment that many migrants and asylum seekers have endured in their home countries. It is this violence—which is rampant across Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—that causes thousands of families to make the hard decision to leave and begin their journey north.
"For two years we suffered extortion, until the day came when we could no longer pay,” said Margarita, a 36-year-old woman from Guatemala who arrived at the Mexican border with her husband and three daughters, ages 16, seven, and six, and was interviewed by MSF n Nuevo Laredo. “I mortgaged my home and we sold everything. My dream was never the American dream. I had a good life with my family, but [the gangs] left us with no choice.”
Once people are on the move, the violence often continues as they travel through Mexico and again near the US border.
José is a Honduran man who was robbed and assaulted during his long journey through Mexico. Gangs in Honduras had threatened to kill Jose, his brothers, and sister, so they travelled north to apply for asylum in the US. He recalls the painful moment when his sister was kidnapped, as they arrived in Nuevo Laredo.
"When we got off the bus some men dragged my brother and me away and took my sister somewhere else,” he said. “After a few hours my brother and I were released, but she wasn’t. We still do not have any news of her. We paid five thousand dollars in ransom, which was all we had, but they have not released her. I do not know who can help us. We do not trust the police here. Our plan was to start the refugee application process in the USA, but now I do not want to leave here until I know what has happened to her.”
MSF teams work with people who are grappling with the difficulties of migration, their desire to build new lives for their children amidst the terror of living in Mexico, and the fear of having to return to their former homes.
“We want to follow the rules,” said Margarita, the mother from Guatemala. “Here they gave us a humanitarian visa, but Mexico is not an option for my family." She was almost kidnapped at the Nuevo Laredo bus station. "They wanted to take my daughters, I screamed with all my strength and we managed to escape. We are going to wait here as we have been asked before requesting asylum in the United States." At the moment she has no other option.
Despite her age, Margarita's six-year-old daughter is aware of the difficult situation her family has had to live through. When her mother asks, “Do you want us to go back to Guatemala?" she replies without hesitation, "No, because they kill you there."