US-Mexico: Closing borders will endanger lives of asylum seekers and jeopardize public health

The Migration Protection Protocol in the state of Tamaulipas

Mexico 2020 © MSF

Mexico City/New York, March 27, 2020—The United States government’s decision to block asylum proceedings and close the US-Mexico border to stem the spread of the coronavirus threatens the health and safety of thousands of people seeking international protection in the United States who are then forced to return to Mexico, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

Since Saturday, March 21, MSF teams have witnessed the forced return of Mexican and Central American migrants and asylum seekers from the United States to Matamoros. Teams have also witnessed the coerced transportation of these asylum seekers from Matamoros to other locations in southern Mexico. MSF is alarmed by the haphazard nature of these actions carried out without contingency or mitigation plans for public health and humanitarian impacts.  


Responding to the coronavirus crisis while protecting asylum seekers

“Using COVID-19 as an excuse to evade their international obligations towards refugees and migrants is not only unacceptable, but also counterproductive in terms of outbreak control,” says Dr. Isabel Beltrán, medical coordinator for MSF in Mexico and Central America. “These types of measures are unnecessary and disproportionate because they discriminate and stigmatize against one segment of the population and prevent people fleeing violence [from] having access to a system of protection and security.”

MSF has responded to countless outbreaks around the world for almost 50 years, and this experience shows that public health measures only work when they include everyone. These measures fail when vulnerable people, like migrants and asylum seekers, are left out.

While containment of coronavirus has been used as the justification to close the US-Mexico border and essentially end the ability to claim asylum at this border point, the US has created a litany of policies that endanger the health of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers that predate this pandemic.

Since 2019, under the US Migration Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” the US has sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Mexico to await their asylum proceedings in some of the most dangerous parts of the country. Many of these asylum seekers have created a makeshift camp in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a city on the US-Mexico border, right next to the international bridge.

The conditions in the camp are unacceptable, with limited sanitation and access to health services—a situation which heightens the chance for COVID-19 transmission. MSF is providing physical and mental health services, and health promotion activities.

“We have increased our medical activities in Matamoros due to the lack of comprehensive care inside the camp, where around 2,000 asylum seekers live,” said Beltrán. ”Despite these efforts, it is clear that it is impossible to properly implement infection prevention measures, such as disinfecting public spaces, frequent hand washing, and social distancing, in a place where entire families sleep together in a single tent.”

As the virus continues to spread in Mexico, MSF is monitoring health needs in the country and preparing to scale up its medical care services as needed. But MSF teams are concerned about the impact the pandemic will have on those who are living in precarious conditions and those who do not have regular access to medical services—these factors will play a huge role in accelerating the spread of the virus.

“The biggest concern people have at this moment is the uncertainty about their futures,” said Marcelo Fernández, head of mission for MSF in Mexico. “They have no option other than sleeping in overcrowded spaces that do not allow for the prevention measures needed at this moment. We are aware of the monumental challenges that come with the pandemic and, for that reason, it is necessary that medical actors coordinate actions that include these populations in their prevention plans and, if needed, containment measures.”

In Mexico, MSF provides medical and mental health care in shelters Tapachula, Tenosique, Coatzacoalcos, Nuevo Laredo, Mexicali, Reynosa, and Matamoros. In Mexico City, MSF runs a specialized therapeutic center for migrants and asylum seekers who are victims of extreme violence.