Central America: Migrants Victimized at Home and During Journey

Anna Surinyach/MSF


NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY—Central American migrants in Mexico are reporting extremely high levels of violence during their journey north, and are listing the dire security situation in their countries as the impetus for leaving home, according to patient survey results released today by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).   

The survey includes testimonies from 396 patients treated in MSF locations in central and southern Mexico between July 2013 and February 2014. Seventy-three percent of patients were trying to reach the United States.  The majority of migrants are Central American men between 18 and 25, but MSF has also seen a surge in the number of women (13 percent of the total) and minors (9 percent) along the route. More than half of all patients—58 percent—had suffered at least one episode of violence along the way.

“On their route, the migrant population is exposed to situations of violence such as mugging, theft, extortion, kidnapping, and sexual violence against women and minors,”said Marc Bosch, MSF head of mission in Mexico. “This violence is basically related to the presence of criminal organizations along the route.”

Read the MSF Report: Comprehensive Care Project for Sexual Violence Survivors in Guatemala City, 2007–2012

The majority of patients treated by MSF were traveling on The Beast, the network of cross-country freight trains used by migrants to traverse Mexico. When asked why they would take such a dangerous journey, more than 40 percent of Salvadorans and 32 percent of Hondurans said they were trying to escape escalating violence in their home countries.

Photo Story: Migrants' Journey Through Mexico To the US

“I fled my country because of the threats of the gangs,” said Miguel Ángel Reyes, a 62-year-old Salvadoran. “I didn’t leave because of poverty, but because of security, and I am applying for refugee status here in Mexico.”

MSF is providing basic and mental health care in specific locations along some of the main routes migrants use to reach the US, but this vulnerable population also needs legal protection, said MSF.

“Besides medical assistance, which MSF is delivering, it is necessary to look for alternatives and measures that ensure the protection of the migrant population,” said Bosch. “We are talking about speeding up the process to obtain humanitarian visas in Mexico, which would reduce the vulnerability of the migrants on the route. We are asking for a guarantee of a thorough examination of any application for refugee status, both in Mexico and in the United States, for migrants who have been victims of extreme situations of violence in their country of origin.”

Both mechanisms already exist in Mexican law and in international treaties, yet they are not currently covering the needs of the majority of the migrant population affected by violence, whose priority is to continue their journey and in many cases make it to the United States.

MSF operates projects in several places in southern and central Mexico, where there is a large influx of Central Americans. Migrants tend to disperse along routes heading north, so it is more difficult to treat them beyond a certain point in the journey, MSF said. The survey results do not provide any information about migrant needs or conditions along the U.S. border. Conclusions of the study cannot be extrapolated to the whole migrant population.

MSF has been treating migrants in Mexico since 2011, focusing its humanitarian response on Central Americans suffering violence on the migrant route. In Ixtepec, MSF runs a clinic and delivers psychological care. There are also MSF teams in Tierra Blanca and Huehuetoca (mental health) and in Lechería and Bojay (mobile clinics).

In 2013, MSF  teams conducted 11,323 regular and mental health consultations. Among them, 1,389 migrants were treated for trauma and 837 attended individual psychological sessions.

Ciudad Hidalgo is the first town many migrants see when they enter Mexico from Guatemala after crossing the Suchiate river. The train doesn't work from here, so they need to walk for hours.
Anna Surinyach/MSF