Coronavirus Exacerbates Dangers for Migrants in Mexican Detention

The COVID-19 pandemic poses urgent challenges for governments around the world to prevent the spread and mitigate the impact of the virus. In Mexico, the response to the pandemic has at best been inconsistent. Although the Ministry of Health called for practical measures such as remaining at home and practicing social distancing, these orders came later than experts would have liked. 

President Lopez Obrador himself is also not setting a great example for social distancing. The number of COVID-19 cases in Mexico could reach up to 700,000 according to the Pan American Health Organization. As the crisis deepens, many of the most vulnerable in Mexico are at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus because of their living conditions. This is especially true for those detained in migration stations in Mexico. 

Migration stations are a term long used by Mexican officials to describe what are de-facto detention centers. These stations can be found across the country, with some of the largest located on Mexico’s southern border where migration traffic is most dense. Conditions in Mexico’s migration stations have been criticized for years. But as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country, the new risks facing detained migrants and asylum seekers in these migration stations are revealing longstanding issues. 

Detention Conditions in Mexico

On April 1st, a Guatemalan migrant died and 14 others were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation after protests broke out and migrants burned mattresses in a detention center in Tenosique, Mexico due to concerns about the coronavirus. In late March, a riot broke out in Mexico’s largest migration station, Siglo XXI, due to detained migrants’ fears of contracting COVID-19 because of unsanitary conditions in the station. Between 50 and 70 migrants, mostly from Honduras and El Salvador protested, stating they were fearful of the virus and upset at the long periods of detention in the migration station. 

Even before the pandemic, migration stations did not meet satisfactory health standards. Reports describe migrants and asylum seekers detained in “prison-like,” enclosed settings with overcrowded facilities, food scarcity, and a lack of proper hygiene. Some migrants in need of medical attention were deprived of treatment for days. Migrants and asylum seekers are also detained for extended periods of time. In February, Refugees International visited the only reception center for Guatemalan children returned from Mexico. The director explained that some children in the center’s care had been detained for up to 30 days in Mexican custody. These conditions pose serious risks for as COVID-19 continues to spread.  

In January, Mexico barred access for human rights organizations or NGOs to enter into detention centers. The National Migration Institute (INM) issued a press release stating that the migration stations were only at 45% of the maximum capacity of detainees and that the INM would provide proper health safeguards for those detained. However, outside observers now do not have the necessary access to verify whether these actions have taken place. A history of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and limited access to medical care coupled with a lack of transparency and oversight is a recipe for disaster during a pandemic. Migrants deserve to be able to practice the same safeguards as everyone else to keep themselves healthy.  

Human Rights Abuses in Detention

The response to the March riot in Siglo XXI was forceful and reflects a history of aggressive and disproportionate measures taken to quell unrest and dissent in migration stations. The National Guard and INM officers deployed poles, water hoses, pepper spray and tasers against rioting migrants. This is not the first time that human rights organizations have criticized the deployment of the National Guard to assist with migrant enforcement. In 2019, the National Guard was accused of 24 separate incidents of human rights abuse against migrants. In January of 2020, the National Guard came under fire for their violent and chaotic response to a caravan of Honduran migrants arriving in southern Mexico. 

In addition to the use of excessive force and human rights violations against detained migrants, reports show that INM officials detained people unnecessarily and most detained migrants were not informed of their right to seek asylum. Detaining people who need international protection, especially during a public health crisis, is both ineffective and cruel. 

So, what should Mexico do to stop the spread of COVID-19 to those in detention? 

Take proactive measures to release as many detained people as possible before the spread gets worse. 

Public health officials universally agree that detention in crowded facilities increases the risk of transmission for asylum seekers and migrants in custody, along with INM officials, National Guard and other staff who work at the migration stations. The Mexican government should put in place alternatives to detention polices and ensure that all migrants have access to testing and healthcare regardless of status. It’s the only way to ensure everyone can fight the spread of the virus and access their basic human right to health.