Mexico City/New York, May 4, 2020—The United States government must suspend all deportations to Latin America and the Caribbean as these actions are moving people from the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic to countries with lower rates of transmission and will exacerbate a public health crisis in the region, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.
"Despite the risk of contagion and the implications for people's health, the US has continued to organize flights to deport migrants and asylum seekers to their countries of origin,” said Marc Bosch, coordinator for MSF in Latin America.
In late March, the Trump Administration closed the US border to asylum seekers, creating an additional risk for people fleeing violence who now face the risk of COVID-19 and threats to their own lives when they are deported. Mexico is also carrying out deportations and voluntary repatriations for migrants who want to return to their home countries. In total, the US and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans, and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April.
"Most of the countries to which the deportees are sent have fragile health systems,” said Sergio Martín, general coordinator for MSF in Mexico. “Any measure that contributes to regionally spreading the disease or putting people at risk must be stopped immediately. Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti have very limited capacity for testing, surveillance, and treatment and a limited supply of medical equipment such as ventilators. A major outbreak of COVID-19 could be catastrophic.”
The US, under emergency coronavirus measures, is expelling all migrants either apprehended or presenting claims for asylum at the border with Mexico, where there is no reliable system to ensure quarantines or isolation for deported people.
This situation is especially critical in Mexico's northern cities, already notoriously dangerous places where migrants are targets of systematic violence. These cities are documenting the greatest number of cases of COVID-19 due to their proximity to the US border and higher levels of population movement. One of the shelters where MSF works in Nuevo Laredo, in Tamaulipas state, had to close its doors to new admissions after 15 people contracted COVID-19 from a person who had recently been deported from the US.
"The situation in Nuevo Laredo shows how continued deportations from the US—despite the fact that the country has the highest numbers of affected people in the world—can put countless other people at risk," said Martín. “It also highlights how shelters need sufficient resources in order to adapt their facilities to minimize transmission.”
The closure of migrant shelters, which has occurred throughout Mexico since the start of this outbreak, has left migrants and asylum seekers with limited ways to control their exposure to the coronavirus and limited access to the basic services they need.
MSF will soon begin activities in Tijuana, a city bordering San Diego, where the high number of COVID-19 cases threatens the collapse of the health system.
The public health implications of continued deportations from the US are not only affecting Mexico. The Guatemalan president recently ended deportation flights to the country after deportees arrived ill. In Haiti, recent deportees from the US have also tested positive for the coronavirus.
People awaiting deportation by the US are often held in detention centers for weeks or even months. These detention centers and other prison facilities in the US have become ideal breeding grounds for the massive spread of COVID-19. MSF has called on US authorities to release people from immigration detention in order to mitigate the risk of transmission.
In Mexico, MSF called on the government to close its migrant detention centers following a riot in late March, in which a Guatemalan citizen died. The detainees were protesting crowded conditions in the center and a lack of information and action on COVID-19 prevention from Mexican authorities.
Mexico must also ensure that the process of voluntary repatriation of migrants to El Salvador, Honduras, or other countries is carried out with the necessary guarantees to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said MSF.
Currently, these countries do not have quarantine mechanisms that guarantee the safe isolation of people arriving from abroad and full access to diagnostic and treatment methods.
“In El Salvador, upon arrival, deportees are sent to separate quarantine centers for deportees, whose conditions differ greatly from those of the rest of the population entering the country,” adds Stéphane Foulon, MSF coordinator in El Salvador. “Although health care is assured, sanitary and isolation measures cannot always be fulfilled because the flow of deportees from the US is constant.”