Behind the Caravan: Seeking Asylum Isn’t Easy, Especially in Mexico

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Date: May 29, 2018

Author: Lily Folkerts


Entrance to CAFEMIN shelter for women and children
in Mexico City. Photo by Lily Folkerts.

Mexico and its asylum and immigration policies have recently received much attention thanks to President Trump’s fixation on the migrant caravan, an annual demonstration in which Central Americans garner safety in numbers and travel together to the U.S.-Mexico border, many to claim asylum. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said they should seek safety “in the first safe country they enter, including Mexico.” Most recently, the U.S. even met with Mexican counterparts to discuss a “safe third country” agreement, which would allow American border patrol officers to turn away asylum seekers at our border and require them to apply in Mexico instead. But as of now, no law forces individuals to seek asylum in Mexico or justifies the rejection of asylum protection in the United States based on the possibility to do so in Mexico. Caravan participants and any migrant can apply in either country, but in neither is it easy. What does it look like to be a migrant seeking asylum in Mexico?

There are only three migrant shelters in all of Mexico City with the joint capacity to house a few hundred individuals. The rest of the country’s shelters are mainly along Mexico’s northern and southern borders.

Until recently, Mexico acted mainly as a transit country, rather than a destination for migrants. A volunteer at Casa Tochan (meaning “Our House” in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of mainly central Mexico) told me that he had never even known Mexico was a destination for migrants before coming. But it makes sense. After all, Mexico is much closer to home and most share the common language of Spanish, Casa Tochan director, Gabriela Hernández Chalta, pointed out to me. And the increased numbers in asylum applications demonstrate this—14,596 people requested asylum in Mexico in 2017.

I visited two of the capital’s shelters in March, both overcrowded and understaffed, overworked and underfunded. Despite hardships, of not only the shelter as a charitable institution but also of those living within it, I saw a distinct sense of determination and hope.

First, who are these migrants and why are they fleeing to shelters in Mexico City?

On my way out from my visit to Casa de Acogida Formación y Empoderamiento de la Mujer Migrante y Refugiada (CAFEMIN by its Spanish acronym, House of Training and Empowerment for Migrant and Refugee Women), a family arrived. The parents, towing a few overstuffed suitcases, and their children, towing ragged stuffed animals, had just journeyed to Mexico with the few valued possessions they could carry.

The morning I visited Casa Tochan, seven young men had arrived. Two were minors, venturing out of their home countries for the first time in their lives, fleeing in the back of trucks and by foot along the infamous “La Bestia” train tracks. For many, by the time they reach a shelter in Mexico City, they’ve already endured a series of threats— from harsh terrain to organized crime. And that’s not even including what caused them to flee their home countries in the first place.

Murals in CAFEMIN’s courtyard.
Quote in Spanish: “In a train travels dreams without fear of crossing borders.”

Photo by Lily Folkerts.

All from Central America, the migrants I met chose to leave insecurity and instability. Their stories are, unfortunately, not uncommon. People from the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—represented 59 percent of asylum applications in Mexico in 2017. And that’s down from 92 percent in 2016, as last year witnessed a swell in applications from Venezuelans, a result of the growing instability and unrest in that country.

Looking at the facts, it’s no wonder they’re fleeing. With a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 in El Salvador, 42.8 per 100,000 in Honduras, and 26.1 per 100,000 in Guatemala in 2017, all three countries are well above the 10 per 100,000 rate the World Health Organization considers the minimum to be characteristic of endemic violence. And this is all not to mention other forms of violence resulting in insecurity—like sexual assault, threats, and extortion—and instigators of it—like organized crimes, gangs, and abusive public security forces.

Violence isn’t the only push factor. Corruption and impunity also run rampant. Just this November, Honduras held presidential elections, the results highly contested. Since, protests and brutal repression have been the norm, with over 30 killed, mainly protestors. And to top it off, the U.S. recognized the president’s re-election as legitimate… while the Organization of American States (OAS) denounced it, calling for new elections. Both shelters confirmed a surge in Hondurans seeking shelter, a result of the country’s increasing instability.

And once they arrive, what do these migrant shelters provide?

“We’re a migrant shelter but we’re also a place for people who have experienced crime.”
-Gabriela Hernández Chalta, founder and director of Casa Tochan


Health clinic inside the Casa Tochan shelter in Mexico City.
The clinic doubles as the shelter’s main office
and a makeshift bedroom. Photo by Lily Folkerts.

Casa Tochan has 16 beds, with the max capacity to house 25. It specializes in taking single and groups of men. CAFEMIN migrant shelter for women and children will have the capacity, once they build their new wing, to house about 200. Currently, it comfortably holds 40, in dire situations up to 100. The two shelters were full at the time of my visit.

For both shelters, most migrants arrive through the direction of other institutions. Some also arrive through word of mouth, thanks to civil society and UNHCR’s subsequent efforts to inform migrants of their rights and resources. According to Tochan’s founder and director, that’s how they’re increasingly arriving since the start of Plan Frontera Sur, a harsh southern border crackdown initiative supported by the U.S. government.

The shelters are a short-term solution; most migrants stay a few months, although recently longer as the wait times for applying and receiving a decision for asylum have increased.

Victims of crime also have extended stays, as they require legal and emotional support. Crimes against migrants in Mexico increased between 2014 and 2016, committed not only by organized crime but also by government officials, the very people tasked with ensuring public safety and rule of law. Unsurprisingly then, 99 percent of cases at the federal level remain in impunity. Yet with only three migrant shelters in the entire city, many migrant victims end up in homeless shelters, places with little knowledge of how to help migrants at risk, Tochan’s director told me. While Tochan doesn’t have an in-house lawyer, it works with other organizations to provide these services.

In addition to an in-house lawyer, CAFEMIN boasts a robust set of services, aimed at helping migrants resettle and integrate into Mexican society. Services range from physical and mental health support to computer and skills classes.

What’s their plan? The state of Mexico’s asylum system

Part of a mural inside the entrance of Tochan.
Quote in Spanish: “I left my town and my culture. I don’t
have much, I only carry my backpack, but it is full of faith,
of dreams, and hope.” Photo by Lily Folkerts.

Many of the shelter’s residents apply for asylum through Mexico’s refugee system (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR by its Spanish acronym). Despite funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to expand offices, personnel, and overall capacity, COMAR is still struggling to process the influx of asylum applications.

Of the over 14,500 applications COMAR received last year, as of the most recent public information, only 1,907 were approved and 7,719 remained unresolved. Reports confirm that asylum in Mexico is still the exception rather than the rule.

Considering Mexico’s responsibility to uphold international and national law to provide access to due process to seek protection, this shouldn’t be the case. The Mexican government blamed September’s earthquakes for increased times to process applications, but staff from both shelters pointed to lack of political will.

The Mexican government should be investing in its asylum system. Instead, it’s investing in border security and deterrence measures… largely on the dime and request of the U.S. government. Just last month, after pressure from Trump on the migrant caravan, the Mexican Secretariat of the Interior promised to “reinforce more elements of security with more elements of the gendarmery,” a sort of military “border patrol” that has been deployed previously under the Plan Frontera Sur and has jurisdiction in civil law enforcement. And that’s on top millions in U.S. funding Mexico has received for border security and technology and is implementing with guidance from the United States.

Finally, how can we help?

“What I really want is for Tochan to not exist because that would mean migrants don’t need it anymore.”
-Volunteer at Casa Tochan


(Top) A mural across the street from Tochan, painted by
migrants to foster community and understanding in the
shelter’s neighborhood. (Bottom) Art of a mural in the
entrance of Tochan. Photo by Lily Folkerts.

Yes, striving to eliminate the need for all migrant shelters is a bit utopian. But this outlook exemplifies the strong sense of determination and hope despite all the shelters’ residents have been through and continue to face. At CAFEMIN, kids ran up and down the courtyard, playing basketball and giggling. At Tochan, teenage boys taking turns shaving new hairstyles and picking through pairs of donated jeans.

And it’s not just the current residents that show this unyielding strength but the past ones—in the form of murals they painted about their experiences. Covering the walls of the shelters and, in Tochan’s case, spilling over onto the walls of the neighborhood and streets. Colorful and powerful, when we talk about migration, these are the only walls I’m okay with.

So in the meantime, while we strive for utopia, here’s what we can do to help. Hold our government and the Mexican government accountable to international and national laws—ensure they provide due process and adequate services to all seeking asylum and a better life. Tell them to stop funding and implementing harsh deterrence and border enforcement that only increase the insecurity of the most vulnerable. Instead, insist they focus on why migrants are leaving home in the first place—from issues of violence to governance.