It took more than a year, thousands of miles of travel, and a medical exam by a pair of volunteer midwives in the back of a car for C., a Honduran migrant in Mexico, to learn the real value of her temporary humanitarian visa.
“I found out in this moment that I have rights,” says C., who asked to use only her first initial for security reasons, as she sits amid dozens of brightly colored tents crammed into the open-air section of the shelter where she and her boyfriend lived for about a month this year. The midwives suggested she seek out a doctor to confirm their suspicion that she’s having twins – a visit C. didn’t know she was entitled to make.
C.’s visa includes medical care, permission to work legally in Mexico, and the security of having “papers” to show when police stop her on the street. But to access these benefits, first she has to know they exist. It’s a clear shortcoming in Mexico’s nascent, yet rapidly growing, asylum system.
That program could be expected to shoulder even more applicants from its northern neighbor if the US follows through on calls to designate Mexico a “safe third country” for refugees: a place the US could legally send asylum-seekers while their cases are pending, or permanently, instead of granting them asylum in the US.
It’s a burgeoning practice across the world, also known as “refugee offshoring,” and in line with the Trump administration’s goal of taking a stricter stance on who it allows into the country as migrants or refugees. But C.’s experience, like other refugee-seekers’, underscores some of the potential challenges ahead. And it raises a fundamental question: What makes a country “safe?” In Mexico, for example, more than 26,000 people have gone missing in the past decade alone, amid ongoing cartel violence and widespread impunity.
“[T]he Mexican government has long failed to protect the human rights of its own people,” says Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection for Human Rights First, a US-based nongovernmental organization.
“While some US politicians may like the idea of the United States shifting or ‘offshoring’ refugee protection responsibilities on to Mexico … it would also result in an even greater humanitarian disaster” in Mexico, Ms. Acer says.
Refugee offshoring is a controversial practice around the world. The US used its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to process seafaring refugees in the 1990s. Australia has made deals with Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house Australia’s aspiring refugees in large camps. In recent years, hard-line immigration policies mean that people sent to these offshore processing centers never actually enter Australia, but are instead sent home or to other countries. Some see the practice as an attempt to keep refugees both out of sight and out of mind for citizens and politicians.
In January, President Trump’s executive order on border security noted the intention to return “aliens … to the territory from which they came.” The order directs immigration officials to return people who are apprehended coming from a “contiguous territory” – Canada or Mexico – to that country, even if they’re not from there, in keeping with existing immigration law.
Last year, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2017 was introduced in Congress. The bill would allow the US Secretary of Homeland Security to remove asylum-seekers to “a safe third country,” including Mexico. It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated by US politicians as recently as October. (The White House and Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.)
Critics point out that legislation doesn’t always jibe with logistics: The US would need to work with Mexico at the very least to coordinate asylum seekers' travel from one country to the other, which could be a tough sell. Ms. Acer also warned of “ ‘refugee ping pong’ – when one country turns a refugee away to another country that also refuses to take that refugee in.”
Consistent calls for Mexico to take some of the asylum-seekers in the US indicate “it's very much part of the administration’s plans for how to keep refugees out of the US,” she says.
Proponents of expanding “third safe country” policies argue the legal foundation is clear.
“The Refugee Convention is explicit on this matter,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for strict immigration limits. “If [asylum seekers] pass through Mexico [on their way to the US] they’re just a regular migrant, simply looking for a better place to live rather than grabbing the first available life preserver.”
A 'life preserver'
Edwin, standing in a tree-shaded park near a meeting house for Casa Refugiados, an NGO focused on refugee orientation and education programs in Mexico City, certainly found his life preserver in Mexico. But he can picture a scenario where he may need to go further north to the US to feel truly safe.
He never intended to leave Honduras, despite the extortion and multiple death threats from increasingly brazen gangs. He tried moving to three different Honduran states before his cousin’s murder pushed him to finally flee the country. Soon after he crossed into Mexico, United Nations workers told him he had a strong case for asylum.
“My destination was the US, but things happen for a reason,” Edwin says of gaining asylum in Mexico. He had some support finding a job and housing here through Casa Refugiados, but “it’s been tough.” He fears his foreigner status makes him a target for kidnapping, and he’s constantly looking over his shoulder for any familiar faces from back home.
The United Nations’ humanitarian agency predicts that Mexico will receive 16,000 asylum-seekers by the end of 2017, more than half of whom are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In the first half of 2017, asylum claims in Mexico were up 94 percent from the same period in 2016. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures show about 20 percent of applicants abandon the process. More than half – about 60 percent of the remaining pool – will get asylum. Those declined protection might return home, stay without documentation, or choose to continue the increasingly dangerous journey north to the United States.
Assessments of the current state of Mexico’s asylum system and its treatment of migrants vary widely. On the southern border there’s a mix of sympathy and suspicion for newly arriving Central Americans, looking for work in communities already rife with unemployment. The capital is a melting pot of nationalities, where it’s easier to blend in as an outsider, and for decades, Tijuana has served as a temporary home for people from around the world.
A July report co-authored by Acer called “Dangerous Territory: Mexico Still Not Safe for Refugees” notes that there were “5,289 [documented] incidents of crime against migrants in 2016, including 921 crimes against migrants committed by federal or state officials.”
“Mexico certainly isn’t a safe third country,” says Acer. “The conditions for refugees in Mexico are horrendous right now.” The current system, which human rights experts date to 2011, “does not yet meet international standards.”
Time to build
Since 2011, Mexico has seen a 1,000 percent increase in claimants, says Mark Manly, a UNHCR official in Mexico.
“If there was a major jump in the numbers,” in a shorter period, Mr. Manly says, “Mexico would face major, major problems in term of asylum processing.”
Manly and his counterparts at COMAR, the Mexican refugee commission, are trying to do a lot with very little, including a budget of about $1.3 million.
“Building an asylum system takes time,” says Manly. “[It] takes not only money, but human resources and time.”
But, from the perspective of refugees like C., something is better than nothing.
“When migrants [leave their] countries,” C. says back at the Tijuana shelter, squinting in the hot sun, “it’s because we want to be better, we want to have better conditions. We want to work.”
Reporting from Tijuana was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation. Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Mexico City.