Thousands of African Migrants Are Stranded in Mexico Hoping to Head North

Thousands of African Migrants Are Stranded in Mexico Hoping to Head North

Hundreds of African migrants in Mexico are protesting the country’s refusal to grant them transit visas to travel to the United States or Canada, where they want to apply for asylum. For months, thousands of African migrants have been forced by the Mexican government to stay in the southern state of Chiapas, on the Guatemalan border. Many of them have been sleeping in tent cities, cooking on the streets and bathing their children in buckets, without the promise of shelter, food or work permits. The long waits for African migrants began in June, when it was reported that Mexican immigration authorities were ignoring transit visa requests by African and Haitian migrants to legally cross through Mexico. For African migrants, the journey to Mexico often takes months as they cross the ocean to reach South America and then embark on a dangerous trek through the Colombian jungle and multiple Central American borders. We speak with Carolina Jiménez, Americas deputy director for research at Amnesty International in Mexico City.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Mexico, where hundreds of African migrants are protesting the country’s refusal to grant them transit visas to travel to the United States or Canada, where they want to apply for asylum. For months, thousands of migrants from countries as far away as Angola, Eritrea, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been forced by the Mexican government to stay in the southern state of Chiapas, on the Guatemalan border, in a permanent state of limbo. Many of the migrants have been sleeping in tent cities, cooking on the streets and bathing their children in buckets, without the promise of shelter, food or work permits. With President Trump’s new restrictions on asylum seekers, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, thousands of other African migrants are also stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border.

AMY GOODMAN: These conditions have sparked protests in Chiapas, were hundreds of African migrants have been demonstrating outside an immigration office and detention center in Tapachula since mid-August. Many of the protesters have been met with violent repression from Mexican Federal Police and the National Guard. This is one of the African migrants at a recent protest.

AFRICAN MIGRANT: [translated] The police are beating all of the people. From the beginning, there was no violence, but the guards hit people with their shields. They are beating all of the Africans. They are beating children. They are beating all of the people here. They don’t want to help us. They are saying that they don’t want any problems with us, but they are the ones who started beating people. They are insulting people. The military and the Federal Police threw tear gas at us. I don’t know what we are going to do. We don’t have good conditions here. We don’t have a place to be. We need help. We need help getting out of here. There are comrades who are in the hospital, beaten with a police shield in the head. We are all human beings here. People are mistreated here every day. In there, they are abusing Africans. If they don’t want us here, then give us a visa to get out. We don’t want to be in Mexico. We cannot be forced to stay in Mexico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The long waits for African migrants began in June, when it was reported the Mexican immigration authorities were ignoring transit visa requests by African and Haitian migrants to legally cross through Mexico. This came one month after the Trump administration threatened the Mexican government with tariffs if the government did not decrease migration through Mexico. In response, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador quickly struck a deal with President Trump to increase militarization of Mexico’s southern and northern borders, and mostly target migrants from Africa, Central America and the Caribbean for apprehension and deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: For African migrants, the journey to Mexico often takes months. They first must cross an ocean to reach South America, then embark on a dangerous trek through the Colombian jungle and multiple Central American borders.

For more, we’re going to Mexico City to speak with Carolina Jiménez, Americas deputy director for research at Amnesty International.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the issue, particularly for African migrants. When people think about migrants on the border of Mexico and the United States, I think they think of, you know, people from the Northern Triangle, but also Mexicans. They rarely think about African migrants. Talk about the crises they’re facing and the fact that many of them are not even trying to come into the United States, but trying to get to Canada.

CAROLINA JIMÉNEZ: That is correct. Unfortunately, African migration to Latin America, in general, is a very invisible issue, although in the last few years we have noticed an important increase in the number of Africans coming to Mexico, trying to reach the U.S. As you were very well describing, despite the fact that many of these people are people in need of international protection because they come from countries that are facing internal armed conflicts and extreme poverty, the Mexican government has basically decided to crack down on these migrants instead of allowing them to transit freely through Mexico as they used to until very recently, until they changed the policy, to seek asylum in the U.S. And what we have right now is a situation of hundreds of people basically trapped in southern Mexico, unable to move north to seek asylum in the U.S., living in very, very difficult conditions, you know, in tents, camping outside the detention centers, basically lacking any access to basic services.

So, sadly, when it comes to extracontinental migration, although the numbers of African migrants are increasing, we see that basically there is no policy in place to deal with their needs, with their specific demands. And we are very concerned that the situation will only get worse. This is a reality. Many Africans, thousands of Africans, are coming through what is a very, very difficult journey, reach Mexico on their way or trying to reach the U.S., and due to, you know, mainly the Trump administration’s pressure on Mexico, the Mexican government is failing to provide these migrants with safe passages and with regularization processes that could improve their current situation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Carolina Jiménez, I wanted to ask you — most when we associate in the news African refugees or migrants, it’s usually to Europe across the Mediterranean, which is obviously a much shorter trip than this trip that the African migrants who end up in Mexico are taking. Is it your sense that as the European Union has sought to crack down and prevent African migration, that this has had an effect of forcing Africans to take this much longer route across the Atlantic Ocean through South America and up through Central America to try to get to a country that can provide them refuge?

CAROLINA JIMÉNEZ: We believe so. Unfortunately, there is a global trend when it comes to, you know, enforcing more restrictive migration policies, and Europe is not an exception. Now, when we compare the data, I mean, if we see the number of African migrants coming into Mexico from January to June 2018 and we see the numbers in 2019 from January to June this year, we see a twenty-eighty percent increase in the number of people coming, mainly from Cameroon, the DRC, Angola, Eritrea, etc. So, clearly, migrants are, you know, forced, basically, to take much longer and much more dangerous routes to be able to reach safety. So this is a trend that is likely to continue as we see restrictive immigration policies being implemented in Europe, in the U.S., in Australia, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: What caused the initial protests in Chiapas?

CAROLINA JIMÉNEZ: Until recently, when migrants from Africa came to Mexico, they were given the choice to regularize or to seek asylum in Mexico. And what this implied in practice is that they were given a document, a notice, that allowed them to move freely into Mexico and, therefore, to travel north. Without any explanation, the Mexican government changed this policy in July this year, clearly due to the pressure they are receiving from the U.S. to crack down on migrants. And now they are forced, basically, to leave Mexico only through Mexico’s southern border. This means they have to go to Guatemala if they want to leave Mexico. They are unable to move north.

Now, this change in policy, obviously, you know, has a negative impact on their plans, on their individual choice to choose the place where they could seek asylum. And this is what created the situation that you were describing earlier. I mean, they decided to protest. Unfortunately, there were clashes with security forces. What was a peaceful protest became a violent one, because there was repression, and they couldn’t continue the protest. But the change in policy toward African migrants is actually reflective of a broader trend in Mexico’s immigration policy, a trend that implies ensuring that migrants that come to Mexico are not able to travel north and seek asylum in the U.S. And this is a very sad situation in which we see one country — in this case, Mexico — basically complying with the enforcement policy of another country, the U.S.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about that specifically and the policies under President López Obrador, the pressure that the Trump administration has put on López Obrador, and also the expectations that people had that he would have a more enlightened policy when it came to immigration and the immigration crackdown from the U.S. Your sense of what the pressures are on the current Mexican administration and how they’re responding?

CAROLINA JIMÉNEZ: Well, López Obrador came to power with a promise that he was going to implement humane immigration policies in Mexico. And, of course, there were expectations that he will comply with those promises. Unfortunately, you know, due to pressure from the U.S. government, something that we all saw in the news in the month of June, when President Trump basically threatened Mexico with imposing tariffs if Mexico didn’t do more enforcement, the narrative that President Obrador had had until then changed.

And what has happened is that Mexico has been forced — or, has actually decided to give in, this pressure, not only to implement a very strong border enforcement, both in the south and in the northern border, and it is known that the government has sent more than 6,000 troops, mainly from members of the National Guard, a new security force, that shouldn’t be doing any migration management tasks, and also implementing the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, which implies that people who seek asylum in the U.S. at the border are sent back to Mexico to wait for their applications to be heard.

So, I think the trend is very clear. I mean, we did have expectations that this new administration will implement more humane and more rights-based migration policies, but the reality is that it’s complying with what the Trump administration has requested. And very sadly, migrants and asylum seekers were the bargaining chip of those trade negotiations, that ended up forcing the Mexican government to cooperate on enforcement and not to cooperate on promoting a regional migration system that could be focused on people and not on trade.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with an African migrant who took part in a recent protest outside an immigration office in Chiapas.

AFRICAN MIGRANT: [translated] We are here. We’re still here. It has been 10 days, and we’re demanding to be given a pass to cross through Mexico. But there are no solutions. We are suffering repression from the police here. The National Guard is here beating us, kicking pregnant women and children.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final comment, Carolina Jiménez?

CAROLINA JIMÉNEZ: We really wish to see a debate on migration that is both efficient for governments, I mean, that understands — a debate that takes into consideration that governments have needs and priorities, etc., but that is rights-based. If we could see countries cooperating in terms of human rights, when it comes to protected people’s human rights, the way we see countries and governments cooperating when it comes to enforcement, I think we would be in a much better place. Mexico has international obligations that it needs to fulfill when it comes to protecting people’s rights to seek asylum and free movely — or, free movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolina Jiménez, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Americas deputy director for research at Amnesty International, speaking to us from Mexico City.

When we come back, we look at the remarkable story of a Palestinian student, who grew up in a Lebanese refugee camp, who was accepted to Harvard, then deported when he got to Logan Airport. Well, he has made it back, and we’ll find out how. Stay with us.