Unofficial refugee camps in Mexico’s northern border towns have become commonplace in the last year as the U.S. requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as a result of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Antithetical to the name, MPP forces asylum seekers to live in crowded shelters, tents, and on the streets without oversight, provisions, or protections normally offered to people living in refugee camps supported by the United Nations refugee agency—UNHCR. For now, the limited services available to asylum seekers are provided by NGOs and faith based organizations. 

Both the U.S. and Mexico continue to refuse to declare an official emergency, thereby allowing UNHCR to provide oversight at these camps, which has forced people to live for months in unsanitary, unsafe conditions. As MPP continues operation into its second year, it’s time to call the crowded MPP regions what they are—refugee camps—and allow UNHCR to provide basic needs to these asylum seekers. 

Beginning in 2016, the U.S. implemented a policy known as “metering,” which allows a certain number of asylum seekers into the U.S. each day dependent upon “capacity,” setting the stage for the foundation of camps and people waited to make a lawful asylum claim. 

At the beginning of 2019, the administration implemented the MPP, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration case, thereby multiplying the number and length of time people began waiting on the southwester border. 

In the first year since its implementation, over 60,000 men, women, and children have been kept waiting in unofficial camps in Mexico’s northern border towns. According to a report by Human Rights First, there have been over 600 reports of violent crime on asylum seekers in MPP in the last year. 

In June 2019, the United States and the Government of Mexico signed a Joint Declaration to address the shared challenges of migration. The declaration required increased enforcement by Mexico, an expansion of MPP, and promotion of economic growth in the Southern Mexico and Central American region. While the declaration aims to reduce migration, very few protections are actually afforded to the 60,000+ people currently languishing in Mexico. 

In their October 2019 update referencing MPP, UNHCR stated they, “stand ready to provide advice and support to ensure that all governments concerned adhere to their protection obligations set forth in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. UNHCR also reiterates the importance of protection-sensitive regional approach to this displacement situation.” 

There are three major benefits to formalizing the MPP camps. 

First and foremost, it would help meet the basic needs of asylum seekers with shelter and security.

While in Mexico, asylum seekers often must stay in shelters set up by overextended nonprofit organizations. These shelters have been unable to keep up with the demand of housing individuals long-term. When space is full at the shelters, asylum seekers are forced to find alternative housing, and may end up sleeping on the streets, meaning they unlikely have regular access to food or clean water and are often exposed to violence.

For example, UNHCR can establish camp boundaries that would hinder the ability of gangs to harass asylum seekers. There have been multiple reports of asylum seekers being too afraid of local gangs to venture outside of shelters even in broad daylight. There has been increased tensions between the newly created Mexican National Guard and shelters that house asylum seekers in border towns and reports of National Guard members harassing migrant shelters for information have been reported in multiple cities. 

Refugee aid agencies are increasingly calling for alternatives to refugee camps that allow refugees to integrate into local populations. However, Mexico’s northern border cities are not suited to hosting vulnerable populations of women, unaccompanied minors, and LGBTQ individuals who are often met with the same levels of violence and extortion they are fleeing in their home country. 

Second, it would prevent the spread of disease. 

In Rwanda, during the sudden mass influx of Burundian refugees in April 2015, they established emergency health posts to identify and prevent potential outbreaks of disease, check for malnutrition, and provide health care services. A similar effort to be used to control and prevent the outbreak of chickenpox, scabies, respiratory infections, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal issues that have been reported in the camps. 

American doctors and nurses volunteering in MPP camps continue to offer to provide flu shots, but faced challenges around organizing with the Mexican government. Mexico requires a licensed physician to supervise flu shots and signed consent for each patient. UNHCR is better equipped to negotiate and handle large scale health initiatives. 

Third, it would increase access to counsel. 

According to TRAC, by the end of June 2019 a total of 1,155 MPP cases had been decided. Yet, only 1.2% —14 individuals—were represented by legal counsel. Having access to an attorney gives asylum seekers the opportunity to learn their options and successfully argue their claims. 

There are limited numbers of U.S.-licensed attorneys living in Mexico or who are able to travel to Mexico frequently to meet with their clients due to time and cost. Additionally, in a letter from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), they cite concerns over safety including attorneys in Mexico being subjected to interrogations, arrests and travel restrictions.

Additionally, the United States committed to the Government of Mexico that it would minimize the time that migrants wait in Mexico for their immigration proceedings. Specifically, the Department of Justice agreed to treat MPP cases such as detained cases such that they are prioritized according to longstanding guidance for such cases. 

If the U.S. is going to continue to close the door to people fleeing violence and persecution, there needs to be an alternative that is able to provide safety and resources. Aid agencies need a way to provide security, shelter, medical attention, water, and food to asylum seekers. 

A formal camp structure would provide oversight to the U.S. and Mexico’s treatment of asylum seekers; offer protections to individuals trapped in Mexico; and provide the opportunity for them to be resettled in other countries.

Related post: Assisted Voluntary Return – Another Opaque Asylum Restriction with a Misleading Name.