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

When Elizabeth* was pregnant, she decided to cross the border by swimming across the Rio Grande. When she was captured by the United States border patrol, she went into labour and gave birth to Carlos*. Two days later they were both deported to Mexico with instructions to wait for their asylum application process in Mexico. *Names have been changed.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
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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.

Matamoros 1

Elizabeth holds her son Carlos
When Elizabeth* was pregnant, she decided to cross the border by swimming across the Rio Grande. When she was captured by the United States border patrol, she went into labor and gave birth to Carlos*. Two days later they were both deported to Mexico with instructions to wait for their asylum application process in Mexico. (*Names have been changed.)
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
MSF Dr. Performs a postnatal care consultation on Carlos
MSF doctor, Mercedes, performs a postnatal care consultation on Carlos* at the tent where his family used to live. They left the camp after attempting to cross the Rio Grande, and now rent a small house in the city. However, medical care can only be received in the camp, so they have returned for Carlos’ check-up. (*Name has been changed.)
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
Health promotion in Matamoros Camp
MSF staff run a health promotion talk in our clinic in the center of the camp. The talks focus on topics including sexual and reproductive health, prevention of COVID-19, dengue fever, and mental health. They are organized for small groups of people in order to maintain social distance.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
A family seeking asylum eats breakfast in the Matamoros camp
A family seeking asylum eats breakfast in the Matamoros camp. This is a familiar scene in the camp: groups of people sitting together, passing time while they wait to hear about their asylum applications in the United States, which have been put on hold indefinitely.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
Children sleep in their tents during the day
To ward off boredom and protect themselves from the intense heat, children often sleep in their tents during the day.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco

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.

Matamoros 2

Tents crowded together in Matamoros camp.
For more than a year, families have lived in these tents. In crowded conditions like this, measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19—such as maintaining social distancing—are impossible to implement.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
Tents protected against strong winds and rain and heat
Throughout the camp, families have improvised ways to protect their tents. They use materials, such as plastic bags or old blankets, to protect themselves from strong winds, rain, and intense sunlight.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
An asylum seeker washes his clothes at one of the water points in the camp
An asylum seeker washes his clothes at one of the water points in the camp. These points are refilled up to four times a day, especially when the temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
Asylum seekers collect cleaning products, such as bleach, disinfectant, and detergent, once a week to clean the areas where they live and try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Asylum seekers collect cleaning products, such as bleach, disinfectant, and detergent, once a week to clean the areas where they live and try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco
Children chop firewood
Because of the pandemic, there are no activities to entertain children. There are no schools either. Children help their families by collecting firewood, which is distributed daily, and chop it before mealtimes.
Mexico 2020 © MSF/Arlette Blanco