Aid workers who opted to remain in the camp of asylum seekers past the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros say buses packed with deportees and newly-arrived migrants seeking asylum have been departing to southern Mexico multiple times a day since the border closed on March 20.
The Trump administration announced last Friday that it would be instructing officials to “immediately” return people who have crossed the border without documents between official ports of entry back to Mexico, Cananda, and “a number of other countries” without detaining or processing them.
A press release circulated by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Friday alleged that staff have witnessed forced deportations and coerced transport to other locations in southern Mexico since Saturday, March 21.
“Using COVID-19 as an excuse to evade their international obligations towards refugees and migrants is not only unacceptable, but is also counterproductive in terms of outbreak control,” said the organization’s Dr. Isabel Beltrán, coordinator for MSF in Mexico and Central America.
“These types of measures are unnecessary an disproportionate because they discriminate and stigmatize against one segment of the population and prevent people fleeing violence [from] having access to a system of protection and security,” MSF wrote in the release.
Photo Credit: Global Response Management
Gaby Zavala, director of Resource Center Matamoros, said she’s been watching packed buses leave twice daily outside the center. The building is just down the road from Repatriacíon Humana, Mexico’s agency tasked with assisting recently deported Mexican nationals as they arrive from across the bridge.
Zavala said on Friday it feels like fewer residents are in the camp. People waiting for court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ program) may opting to self-deport under pressure from officials, She explained. The deportations only apply to people who have crossed without documents between ports of entry, but those in MPP proceedings have been left with limited information. “There was a publication form Enlace Mexico maybe a week ago – some kind of publication that said the state of Tamaulipas was trying to put an ordinance or something to repatriate all of the people here, due to COVID-19,” she said.
“They weren’t specific as to who, but they did mention immigrants – ‘migrantes’. That’s a wide spectrum. It could mean people in the camp, it could mean people that were in the United States and had some kind of felony and were being deported, or it could be new arrivals from Central America that are trying to seek asylum here.”
The center and Global Response Management (GRM) are the only two organizations whose staff is still in Matamoros daily. Asylum seeker staff are assisting remote legal efforts led by Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazon by use of a video intercom system. A crew of camp residents volunteering at the center take care of sanitation and water. GRM, which has an office in the building, provides care from a medical trailer parked on the levee and staffs asylum seekers who have medical training. Zavala said her volunteers have seen busloads of people heading South twice daily. “I’ve been telling people to keep an eye out, she said.
On an average evening, deported men and women can be seen walking in groups towards Repatriacíon Humana with government-issued mesh bags. Now, buses are allegedly departing to Tapachula, according to information provided to aid workers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Helen Perry, Executive director of GRM, explained in January the UNHCR would usually work with responsible governments to regulate and track conditions in the camp, which is not the case in Matamoros. The agency has been present in Tapachula, Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala.
Families living in tents in the plaza were relocated to a dirt levee along the river in early February.
Sam Bishop, Project Coordinator for Global Response Management (GRM) in Matamoros said in a phone call on Monday that buses had been leaving the camp. Staff learned during a meeting with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM, National Institute of Migration) on Monday that new arrivals are no longer processed under MPP. Bishop said from what he understands, “People are arriving and then being sent to Guatemala – a ‘safe third county’ kind of thing – but Guatemala closed its airports, so they’re doing it on land.”
“That’s at odds with what we were originally told by INM, which is that they’re offering rides down there to anybody who wants them. We still don’t really know.” Bishop added that he didn’t notice any presence of Mexican marines or military in the camp on Monday.
The coordinator said aid workers were told by UNHCR that it had yet to report the arrival of the first departed buses on Monday. “In theory, they’re supposed to be driving straight through the night and should have arrived by now. He said it may be hard for the agency to track deported asylum seekers, “Especially if they’re just dropping people off on the side of the street and letting them disperse naturally.”
Bishop said GRM is still working overtime to set up its 20-bed field hospital by April 6. Efforts to ship equipment have been challenging, he explained, as shipping is delayed, expensive, and some equipment is coming from China. “The earliest we’ll be operational, as far as the field hospital is concerned, is April 6,” he said.
During a recent meeting with public health officials in Matamoros, staff learned that the city of nearly 500,000 has access to only 10 ventilators and 40 ICU beds, GRM Director Perry explained last week. Other staff have been working to build a water filtration system in accordance with World Health Organization recommendations.
Closures and shutdowns in response to coronavirus could severely impact the aid process. Local coalition members expressed worry that officials in Matamoros will use the very real danger posed by COVID-19 to reclaim the land occupied by an estimated 2,500 asylum seekers at the checkpoint.
In February, aid workers negotiated with city officials to move residents living in the plaza up to a dirt levee along the Rio Grande. Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told members of Congress visiting the camp in January that the levee can flood during hurricane season. In early November, case workers with Mexico’s National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) were filmed in the camp threatening to take residents’ children away if they opted not to relocate to a shelter.
A section of the plaza that used to be filled with tents sits empty.
Zavala said there isn’t much activity in the area. Volunteers who frequent the camp have been dropping off meals and supplies but are staying away as a preventative measure. “I wouldn’t doubt there are some people leaving mainly because of the conditions – not because they’ve made the sound decision to go. The buses are here. The option to leave is here. If you had a bad day and you’re feeling done with it, that option is right there.”
The director said she’s seen court dates extended through August and that rumors have spread about MPP being ‘canceled’. In recent days, INM has not been responding to messages and has not maintained a visible presence in the camp, according to Zavala. “What is certain is that every day, there are multiple buses leaving twice a day. And they are full. I stand at the window and I gaze at them. They are full of people. People are actively leaving on a daily basis. Who they are? I don’t know.”
Over the weekend, Zavala spoke with a woman whose son had a broken arm. They were staying at Alberca Chavez, a shelter operated by the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Matamoros. “I asked her if there had been anyone with MPP leaving on the buses. She said yes,” Zavala said.
“She told me they’re making conditions really uncomfortable at the shelters. They’re pressuring them daily to sign up to get on the buses. She said once you sign up and you’ve changed your mind, you still have to go. She estimated 50 people have left from the shelter on those buses.”
Now, the center plans to travel South to assist those already in MPP proceedings whose cases are ongoing. “If someone has MPP and they’re being sent to Tapachula, they’re probably not going to go to their country. We can facilitate a remote network of legal help the way we do here, so people still have a way to communicate with attorneys in the U.S. If there’s nobody there supporting MPP, you’re going to have a lot of people abandoning their cases. Once they’re in southern Mexico, how are they going to get back up? How are they going to get ahold of their attorneys?”
While UNHCR has a presence in the city, the platform the organization has presented to aid networks is “to hold Mexico responsible for their end of the bargain,” she said.
“That means encouraging people to apply for asylum in Mexico. I’m not against it – I think it’s an excellent idea, because a huge portion of these people don’t have real, viable cases. But, I think for the people that do, they deserve every single chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. We want different options. And we want people to make their decisions based on their ability to have access to everything.”