PH: EFE_ Carlos López
Now that the Mexican State has partially and temporarily suspended the deprivation of liberty of migrants, it is time to put a permanent end to the longstanding policy of immigration detention in the country
By: Jessica Ramírez
June 25, 2020
“Today the world is fighting with claws against the pandemic that is plaguing us, and we are still condemned in confinement to die with no alternative (…) if someone here present were to contract the virus it would be lethal for each one of us.” These were some of the words of the migrants who survived the riot in the immigration station of Tenosique, Tabasco, on March 31st of this year.
This is one of at least four riots and protests that occurred inside Mexican immigration stations during that month. The riots were caused by the desperation and fear of the migrants as they were deprived of their liberty in overcrowded conditions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to these events, there was brutal repression by the authorities, resulting in the death of one Guatemalan asylum seeker and at least 14 injured people.
In Mexico, the practice of immigration detention is not new, and neither are its consequences. According to media reports, at least 24 migrants have died in detention centers since 2013. Immigration detention in the country is part of a systematic policy that has been the rule for decades, despite the fact that, in accordance with the Mexican State’s international human rights obligations, immigration detention is only admissible when it is used exceptionally as a measure of last resort, for the shortest possible time, and when it serves legitimate purposes in each specific case. Additionally, conditions of detention contrary to international human rights standards may constitute torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
In Mexico, human rights violations have been systematically documented for years within the immigration stations operated by the National Institute of Migration, ranging from poor nutrition, overcrowded conditions, deficient medical attention, and even ill-treatment by state agents that could constitute torture.
People deprived of their liberty are highly vulnerable to COVID-19, since they are commonly found in overcrowded conditions, with precarious health care and without policies for the care for people who carry the virus to reduce its spread. For example, there is information on immigration detention centers in the country that have exceeded their capacity by up to five times.
In response to this, various United Nations agencies called on States to release detained migrants without delay, due to the lethal consequences that an outbreak of the virus would have on this population.
As a result of this call and the pressure exerted by the human rights movement, the Mexican State announced in April the liberation of the majority of people who were detained in the country’s immigration stations. Although, in principle, this appears to be a positive step, the Mexican State has failed to guarantee the rights of migrants, and instead has exposed them to new risks.
It is of grave concern that the same State in its communication reported that, of the 3,759 people who were detained in migrant holding centers during the month of March, 3,653 were returned. In other words, most of the persons were returned to their countries, without specifying whether an individual analysis of their needs for international protection was carried out, which could constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, as well as the collective expulsion of foreign persons, both of which are prohibited by international law.
In addition to requesting the release of detained migrants, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on States to ensure that migrants released from detention centers have access to housing, food and basic services. However, the people were evicted from the immigration stations in highly precarious conditions, many of them were abandoned on the migratory route or on the southern border of the country, where they face risks as serious as those that forced them to migrate in the first place. Additionally, most civil society shelters have been forced to close their doors as a protection measure against COVID-19. This has resulted in many migrants and refugees in Mexico finding themselves on the streets, wandering through cities and highways, dependen on handouts.
In the context of this pandemic, it is insufficient to evict people from migrant detention centers, and it is essential to urgently adopt protocols for the release of detainees that guarantee their human rights, with special attention to those who are in the most vulnerable conditions. Additionally, progress must be made towards the immediate release of those who are still detained, under adequate conditions, and the permanent end of the policy of migratory detention in the country.
In addition, within the framework of the pandemic, the varied situations that affect the migrant population are exacerbated, so it is essential to address the structural barriers and gaps that the migrant and refugee population faces in accessing health services, access to employment, the right to water, and food, among other fundamental rights.
In the context of the International Day of the Refugee, it is important to remind the Mexican State that even in a context of crisis, Mexico cannot ignore its international obligations regarding migrants and refugees within its territory. In this sense, the State must ensure full access to the right to seek and receive asylum, as well as respect the principle of non-refoulement, which includes the non-rejection at the border of persons in need of international protection.
In addition, the measures taken by the State to address the COVID-19 must have a human rights focus. To this end, measures should be adopted that ensure non-discrimination and take into account all factors that increase the levels of vulnerability of migrants and refugees, such as gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability, among others.
Now that the Mexican government has suspended, albeit partially and temporarily, the deprivation of liberty for migrants, it is time to permanently end the longstanding policy of immigration detention in the country, attend to the State’s international commitments, and move towards the exceptionality of immigration detention in full compliance with international standards.
Jessica Ramírez is an attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law.