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U.S. Should Stop Pretending Mexico Is a Safe Country for Refugees

As the Trump administration moves to designate Mexico a ‘safe third country,’ allowing the return of refugees trying to enter the U.S., Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer explains her findings on Mexico’s flawed asylum system.

Written by Eleanor Acer Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Mexico us refugees
Asylum seekers wait near the U.S.-Mexico border at El Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on May 7, 2017.AFP/GUILLERMO ARIAS

Mexico is far from a “safe” country for refugees. That’s the central conclusion of Human Rights First’s recent report, which shows that refugees face acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault and trafficking in Mexico. We also found that Mexican migration officers often fail to refer them to asylum processing, and have returned them to countries where they face persecution.

This is especially alarming because the Trump administration and its Congressional allies are trying to shift United States’ refugee protection responsibilities on to Mexico by designating it a “safe third country.”

President Donald Trump’s January executive order on border security contained a provision that, if implemented, would allow the U.S. to return some people crossing the border to “contiguous territories” such as Mexico while they wait for U.S. immigration court removal hearings.

Then, a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee approved a bill for consideration in the House that would allow the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security to declare Mexico a safe third country.

The bill’s sponsor Mike Johnson (R-La.) asked: “Why should countries who in essence promote trespass to the U.S. not be required to bear the settlement costs of those they allow in to their country to pass to the U.S.?”

His bill would, he said, “allow the return of apprehended Central Americans to Mexico where they could apply for asylum” and “reduce the numbers of aliens seeking to come to the U.S.

Such proposals to shift refugee protection responsibilities to Mexico will undermine U.S. global leadership and increase the suffering of refugees.

Attorneys, aid workers and human rights monitors in Mexico told Human Rights First that Mexican migration officers often deport asylum seekers despite their fears of returning to their countries of origin and discourage those held in migration detention from applying for asylum.

One woman described how migration officers sent her back to Honduras, where the government had persecuted her for pressing authorities to investigate her brother’s disappearance. She fled again a week later and made her way to the U.S., where she received asylum with Human Rights First’s assistance.

Some Mexican officers invoke the threat of months in detention to try to discourage refugees from pursuing asylum claims. In other cases, the refugees are not even told they can apply for asylum, as many told Amnesty International researchers. From January to October 2016, only 5 percent of the 130,000 Central Americans apprehended in Mexico applied for asylum.

Even children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America face significant barriers to protection in Mexico and are often detained in violation of their human rights, according to a June report by the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center in Tapachula, Mexico, and the U.S.-based Kids In Need of Defense. Only 138 of the 35,000 minors from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) who were detained in the first four months of 2016 sought asylum; only 77, or 0.2 percent, received protection.

Those refugees who do manage to apply for asylum in Mexico face a flawed system. Despite progress since its launch in 2011 – including increased recognition rates – substantial barriers to protection remain. These include an absurd 30-day filing deadline and a lack of asylum adjudicatory staff and offices.

Adjudicators frequently deny refugees asylum on the erroneous assertion that they can safely relocate within small countries, such as El Salvador or Honduras, without risk of harm, when in fact their persecutors do have national reach. In other cases, adjudicators fail to make individual case-by-case determinations, relying on copy-and-paste information and explanations from prior decisions relating to other applicants, leading to grave inaccuracies in written asylum decisions.

The number of asylum claims filed in Mexico rose 678 percent between 2013 and 2016. In 2016, 8,788 people applied for asylum. In the first three months of 2017, 3,543 applied, putting Mexico on track for more than 22,500 asylum applications in 2017. Yet Mexico’s adjudication agency has offices in only two locations outside Mexico City. It has no offices in northern states and lacks the staffing necessary to adjudicate claims in a timely manner, forcing many to wait long periods.

Meanwhile, refugees in Mexico have little protection against violence. “Impunity for crimes against migrants in Mexico is at alarming levels,” the Washington Office on Latin America said recently.

In April, foreign minister Luis Videgaray announced that Mexico would not accept non-Mexicans turned away or removed from the U.S. Yet the U.S. continues to press Mexico to “manage” the border without any public affirmation of the importance of international law prohibiting the return of refugees to places of persecution.

The Trump administration and its Congressional allies should abandon counterproductive and harmful plans to return refugees to – or force them to remain in – Mexico. These proposals subvert international law, leave refugees in danger and set a poor example for other nations.

There is much that the Mexican government, the U.S. and other donor states should do to improve refugee protection in Mexico. They should robustly support the United Nations refugee agency’s efforts to develop a fair and effective asylum system in Mexico, enhance its capacity and foster other asylum systems in the region.

U.S. government agencies – which provide significant funding to Mexico for migration enforcement – should press Mexican authorities to identify and refer asylum seekers for protection procedures, rather than deport them. The U.S. should also encourage the use of alternatives to detention for asylum seekers.

Whatever progress Mexico makes on refugee protection, however, cannot justify the U.S. abdicating its own responsibilities to protect people fleeing persecution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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