No Rights: Mexican Airports as Unprotected Spaces for Asylum Seekers

For most foreigners who enter Mexico through one of its 15 international airports, inspection zones are scenes of minor, routine screening of luggage and personal documents. For others, however, they can become places where their human rights are violated.

One of those cases was that of Farooq Muhammad, a Pakistani citizen who spent a month and a half in “La Burbuja” (“the Bubble”), a small isolated detention zone inside the Mexico City International Airport (AICM). Farooq had arrived in Mexico from Pakistan in September 2020 and was detained in the inspection zone because of an alleged issue with his immigration record. Upon appealing his rejection, a court issued a judicial order stopping immigration officials from illegally denying him entry into Mexico, yet the judicial order also requested immigration authorities to ensure Farooq’s stay at the airport, rather than ordering his release or his transfer to a migrant detention facility outside the airport.

As Farooq’s attorney, Luis Xavier Carrancá of the Ibero-American University Refugee Clinic, told Refugees International, Farooq’s prolonged detention was the result of a contradictory judicial order that left him caught in a limbo: protected from deportation but unable to enter Mexico. As a result, Farooq was deprived of his personal freedom at the AICM for more than one month. Only after the intervention of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH) was he sent to a detention center from which he was released days after.

Official data shows that from January 2017 to September 2020, Mexico’s immigration authority (INM for its Spanish acronym) denied foreigners entry into Mexico 70,693 times.  More than 60 percent of those denied entry were nationals from Latin American countries: Colombia (23 percent), Venezuela (15 percent), Ecuador (15 percent), Perú (7 percent), and Brazil (7 percent). Of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti (7 percent), Venezuela (3 percent), and Ecuador (2 percent) have the highest number of denied entries at a Mexican airport relative to their citizens’ total entry attempts into Mexico.

Additionally, data suggests that nationals from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe are the least likely to be rejected at a Mexican airport compared to citizens from African and Central Asian countries who have the higher rates of rejection at a Mexican airport. Whereas the first group of countries show rates lower than 0.010 percent, countries such as Eritrea, Cameron, Somalia, Uganda, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have rates of rejection between 6 percent and 16 percent.

Although the number of denials is low compared to allowed entries, there is cause for alarm. For asylum seekers whose means of entry into Mexico is mainly by air, entering the territory is the first step in applying for refugee status. Therefore, an unlawful denial of entry could have severe consequences for their lives as it blocks them from securing the safety and protection they need. The risk to displaced Haitians and Venezuelans is particularly worrying considering the humanitarian and protection needs nationals from these countries have had in the last five years and continue to have today.

In addition, the Mexican Ombudsman Office (CNDH), civil society organizations, and Mexican media have made allegations of illegal and arbitrary practices inside the inspection and security zones of Mexican airports. These include subjecting foreign people to hostile interviews and extended periods of detention and isolation, and failing to provide access to a translator, consular assistance, or a phone call. Some people have even reported immigration officers verbally harassing them and coercing them to sign documents without their consent.

These practices amount to violations of human rights under both Mexican and international law. They are enabled by the lack of transparency and oversight of the INM’s activities in these spaces, which is made worse by the restricted nature of those places. Inspection zones restrict access to citizens; court officers; CNDH personnel; and the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), the Mexican authority in charge of granting refugee status.

Left to fight alone for their right to enter Mexico, asylum seekers have very little probability of success entering Mexico. The absence of information about their rights, the lack of oversight of immigration officials, and the resulting neglect of due process create an untenable situation. However, officials carry out these violations with impunity. In 2015, the CNDH issued a specific recommendation for the INM to address reports of illegal practices at these restricted spaces. The INM accepted the recommendations but, five years later, there is no information on the changes or measures carried out.

Although Farooq did not request asylum, his case certainly raises concerns about whether Mexican judges can effectively protect asylum seekers from being sent to countries where their lives might be in danger. There are Mexican jurisprudential criteria that consider that, since a denial of entry does not put the life, physical integrity or freedom at risk, judges should not issue urgent precautionary measures to stop the rejection from happening. These jurisprudential criteria limit courts’ abilities to intervene in cases where a person may be at risk of serious harm if rejected. Even in the best cases, such as Farooq’s, courts have prevented people from being denied entry only to order their transfer to a detention center instead.

Refugees International recently issued a report calling on the Mexican government to adopt a series of recommendations to alleviate this situation and enforce better protections for displaced people in the country. The presence of a COMAR official inside inspection zones at the airport and the establishment of an independent oversight committee over INM are particularly relevant and urgent actions for the Mexican government to implement. If implemented, they would allow asylum seekers to apply within the airport and would provide greater accountability and deter illegal or arbitrary practices from the INM.

Without these changes, Mexican airports will remain unprotected spaces for asylum seekers, and can become labyrinths with no way out but into detention. Asylum seekers will endure detention or, after being rejected, they will be likely deterred from entering legally into Mexico. For these individuals, securing access to Mexican territory and protection is a matter of life and death.

Daniela Gutierrez Escobedo is an intern at Refugees International.