Mexico: Asylum seekers face daily threats to their health and safety

Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco

The United States' "Remain in Mexico" policy—officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)—has forced at least 60,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearings since February 2019. Some people have waited for months, others for more than a year. Many wait in makeshift tent camps along the Rio Grande in dangerous border cities such as Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo, all in Tamaulipas state.

Tamaulipas state is designated by the US State Department of State with a level four “do not travel” warning due to the extreme dangers of crime and kidnapping. This is the same warning level applied to active conflict zones such as Yemen and Syria. As of May 2020, there were more than 1,000 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico under the MPP, according to Human Rights First

Health education materials are posted at water points to guide people in proper hand-washing techniques. Next to these health materials are posters of people who lived in the camp but have gone missing.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco

When COVID-19 was first reported in Mexico earlier this year, there were more than 2,000 asylum seekers waiting in a camp in Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas.  

In March, under the pretext of controlling the spread of COVID-19, the US government closed the US-Mexico border to all non-essential travel and indefinitely postponed all asylum proceedings. Since then, hundreds of people have left the camp in Matamoros, deciding to return home to the dangers they fled or attempting to cross the border.

In response to COVID-19, a fence was placed around the camp and people’s movements to and from the camp are now restricted. For example, they cannot leave the camp to get firewood or wash their clothes in the Rio Grande, and are forced to rely on donations. These restrictions combined with desperate conditions—including the lack of access to basic services such as clean water or proper drainage—have forced some people to leave the camp and move to shelters in Matamoros or other areas along the border.

The approximately 700 people who are left in the camp in Matamoros, who had hoped to find safety and protection in the US after suffering violence, extortion, or kidnapping in their home countries or on their way through Mexico, must now wait indefinitely. They are living in flimsy tents, unable to practice social distancing or isolate when needed, and with little access to water and sanitation or routine medical care.

Since MPP was implemented, Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has provided comprehensive health services within the camp in Matamoros. From March to June, MSF provided 735 mental health consultations and 843 medical consultations in Matamoros.