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A girl from Salvador looks through the US-Mexico border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on December 29, 2018.
Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

The abandoned asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border

Thousands of asylum seekers remain at risk in Mexican border towns, waiting for humanitarian aid.

Mere feet from the US-Mexico border, thousands of asylum seekers have been forced to live in squalid conditions in some of the most dangerous parts of Mexico. They are under threat from drug cartels and dependent on American volunteers for even the most basic necessities.

The humanitarian crisis is happening in plain sight, but they’re still waiting for desperately needed aid. Some migrants are lucky to find housing in shelters, hotels, or rooms for rent, but for more than 5,000 others, only colorful tents and tarps, some held up by only sticks and stones, stand between them and the elements, even as temperatures drop below freezing. The encampments are clustered around bridges linked to US ports of entry along the Rio Grande, where families and children have been waiting for a chance to apply for asylum for months.

The Trump administration has touted a nearly 75 percent drop in the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border over the past few months, ever since the numbers peaked at more than 130,000 in May. It’s the result of policies that force asylum seekers into Mexico, waiting to be initially processed and then waiting again for a decision on their asylum application. As populations swell, both the US and Mexico have left thousands in the camps without basic necessities like clean drinking water and warm clothes — and at risk for extortion, kidnapping, and rape at the hands of cartels and other criminal actors.

Trump administration officials have dismissed media reports of the dangers facing migrants waiting in Mexico. The US has continued to send aid to Mexico — $139 million in 2018 — but otherwise, advocates haven’t seen any evidence of a US presence on the Mexican side of the border administering aid to migrants. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to Vox’s request for comment on US efforts in Mexico.

US Border Patrol agents keep watch over migrants detained after crossing the US-Mexico border on May 19, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Mexican government has deployed its National Guard and military to help improve security in some of the border cities, and has also opened a small number of municipal shelters, but is doing little else to protect the migrants who have been relegated to makeshift tent settlements for now.

Nor has the United Nations filled the growing need for humanitarian aid along the border. Its agencies dealing with refugees and migrants, which depend on US dollars to operate throughout the world, are in a delicate political position: The United States, which wrote many of the laws governing the treatment of asylum seekers, now appears to be breaking them.

UN agencies are working on improving capacity in migrant shelters, sending migrants back to their home countries and informing migrants of their options, but haven’t delivered aid to the encampments.

In the meantime, asylum seekers remain in dangerous, undignified conditions.

“The moral evasion here is very obvious,” Yael Schacher, a senior US advocate at Refugees International, said.

There is a humanitarian crisis at the US’s doorstep

The primary driver of this crisis is that President Donald Trump’s policies are sending thousands of migrants back to Mexico, where there isn’t enough safe, temporary housing in which they can stay.

In 2018, US Customs and Border Protection officials started limiting the number of asylum seekers it processes at ports of entry each day. Those waiting had to do so in Mexico, where migrant shelters are at capacity. Many have been forced to sleep on the streets. The amount of names on lists of those waiting to be processed exceeded 26,000 in August.

Once they are processed, though, they may quickly be returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). More than 56,000 migrants have been sent back to await decisions on their US asylum applications.

In Matamoros, a city of about 500,000 people across the border from Brownsville, Texas, about 2,000 migrants have moved into makeshift tent encampments along the Rio Grande — so close to the US border that they can show up at the port for processing whenever their names are called.

A view of a migrant camp near the US border just in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico, on November 1, 2019.
Lexie Harrison-Cripps/AFP via Getty Images

Matamoros is a dangerous place: The US State Department has issued a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” advisory for the region due to high rates of violent crime, kidnapping, and robbery.

The encampment has grown to house several thousand people. Some tents have been erected on land that has been contaminated with feces because there were no public toilets, raising concerns about E. coli infections. Migrants have no access to running water, leading to poor hygiene and the contraction of rashes and funguses. As flu season ramps up, there are concerns it will spread throughout the camps.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) runs refugee camps in other parts of the world, including major camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan and for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The UNCHR typically helps run a refugee camp when countries that have been absorbing large numbers of refugees, usually numbering in the millions, request the organization’s assistance, Chris Boian, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Washington, DC, said.

But UNHCR has nothing to do with these makeshift encampments along the US-Mexico border. It’s not necessary that the organization run the camps in Mexico because the overwhelming majority of migrants come from Spanish-speaking countries and have a chance to integrate into the local community, according to UNHCR’s office in Mexico. Instead, the migrants themselves are in charge, with some oversight from the Mexican government.

Earlier in December, the Mexican government began constructing six large tents over a football field near the bridge to the US port of entry in Matamoros, where they will require asylum seekers living in the tents to relocate.

“Several thousand families are living in the most deplorable, the most horrid conditions imaginable,” Ursela Ojeda, an attorney with the Women’s Refugee Commission, said.

Basic health care services come from US-based nonprofits, including Global Response Management, which are stretched thin. Other volunteers cross the border daily, bringing supplies like bedding and food.

Sometimes, parents try to send their children to the port of entry alone so that US officials will be forced to process them, believing they will be safer in the US than in the camps, Schacher said. Their settlements are so close to the port that they can wave to their children as they cross the border.

Even when migrants do obtain a spot in a shelter, the availability and quality of shelter space varies.

The Mexican government runs a federal shelter in Ciudad Juárez, where more than 650 migrants are currently living, according to Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in El Paso, which is right across the border. Migrants are technically only allowed to stay there for three weeks at a time, but some exceptions have been made. Though it’s guarded by the Mexican military, there is little security inside the shelter, leading to reports of sexual violence, she said.

Of the 15 other private shelters in Juárez, many are located in dangerous neighborhoods — where migrants are vulnerable to cartel kidnappings — and in buildings that should be condemned, Levy said. Other migrants live in small rented rooms, in abandoned buildings, and in hotels, which are also frequently raided by kidnappers.

Migrants sit outside the Iglesia Metodista “El Buen Pastor,” a church-run shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on May 18, 2019. Migrants here wait for their asylum hearings or for their number to be called on the metered system.
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Although they are allowed to study alongside Mexican children, few migrant children go to school in Juárez because their parents are afraid that they will be kidnapped. Save the Children has opened small schools inside some of the shelters.

The nonprofit group Team Brownsville has also opened up an informal “Sidewalk School” on a concrete plaza near the bridge in Matamoros, where teachers provide school supplies and brief lessons in math, reading, social studies, geography, music, and English to children stranded there — but it’s no substitute for formal schooling.

The US has shelters for migrants on the American side of the border that could hold thousands of people. But now that the Trump administration is sending migrants back to Mexico, some of those shelters have been taken over by nonprofits, who use the buildings when they make sandwiches to bring to the camps.

The UN is helping build shelters — but isn’t running the camps

Advocates argue that the ultimate solution is an end to the Remain in Mexico policy, which they say is illegal because US law forbids sending asylum seekers back to countries where they will likely face persecution.

But they’re also wondering why no one is stepping in to offer more humanitarian aid, particularly in Matamoros. The UN has stopped short of deploying humanitarian workers on the ground to manage the tent camps or even to bring migrants basic supplies, like food and bedding. And while UN refugee camps have security measures in place, monitoring who enters and exits the camp, the migrants in Matamoros have no such protections.

Although the UNHCR has expanded its presence to eight offices across the country, including in Tijuana and Juárez, it sends only mobile teams to Matamoros for missions that might last a few days, due to concerns about safety.

Both of the UN’s agencies dealing with refugees and migration have taken some steps to help migrants. The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has historically focused on migration management and not humanitarian protections, funds shelters in Juárez, Tijuana and, more recently, Matamoros. It’s been able to increase capacity and provide water, sanitation, staffing, and food items as necessary, Christopher Gascon, the chief of IOM’s mission in Mexico, told Vox. In Matamoros, where shelters are at capacity, the group is working with the local government to identify spaces that could house more migrants.

The agency has also assisted 1,167 migrants, many of whom were returned to Mexico under MPP and then decided to go back to their home countries, Gascon said, interviewing them to ensure they would be safe and then placing them on buses, commercial flights, or charter flights for free. If migrants are found to be at risk in their home countries, the agency will refer them to the UNHCR or to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance.

The IOM’s next project is to help migrants who must stay in Mexico on a long-term basis become self-sufficient. The agency plans to help migrants obtain work permits and jobs, find accommodations outside of the shelters, and offer cash assistance so they can pay for rent, food, and some basic household items for a few months, Gascon said.

The UNHCR filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Innovation Law Lab v. McAleenan case — a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy — emphasizing that the US is bound by international refugee law not to send asylum seekers back to places where they would likely face persecution. Otherwise, the UNHCR has primarily worked to inform migrants of their options in the US and Mexico and to explain how the asylum system works, Josep Herreros, UNHCR’s protection officer in Mexico City, said. When UNHCR encounters particularly vulnerable asylum seekers, they’re informally referred to the Mexican authorities.

The group has raised concerns with Mexican authorities about ensuring that migrants have access to “dignified reception conditions,” including proper documentation and places to stay while they wait in Mexico, Herreros said. The UNHCR is also helping shelters and NGOs improve their capacity to administer protection and is working on an initiative to help victims of gender-based violence in Mexico.

Herreros emphasized that Mexico ultimately has to take responsibility for migrants’ well-being: “We are trying to enhance the protection response, but we are not operationally involved in the reception of persons returned by MPP,” he said. “The government of Mexico is in charge of the receptions.”

Could the UN be doing more?

The US hasn’t administered on-the-ground support to migrants stranded in Mexico. Congress approved a funding bill earlier this year that included aid for additional resources, including medical care and basic necessities, inside the ports of entry, but not on Mexican soil. A spokesperson for the US Agency of International Development said that the organization also has no involvement with the implementation of MPP in Mexico.

Mexico, meanwhile, is under pressure from Trump to treat migration as an enforcement problem, rather than as a humanitarian one. The government wants to avoid antagonizing the Trump administration, but it also simply lacks the capacity to manage such large numbers of migrants.

A US Border Patrol helicopter flies over the US-Mexico border fence as President Donald Trump visits Calexico, California, on April 5, 2019.

And the UN faces its own limitations. UNHCR’s offices in Mexico have traditionally focused on helping migrants who are seeking asylum in Mexico, not in the US, with integrating into Mexican society and finding jobs, Herreros said. They’re not in contact with US authorities. The agency wasn’t included in initial discussions between the US and Mexico about the Remain in Mexico policy.

The organization recognizes that more needs to be done to offer humanitarian aid and is exploring ways to expand its presence on the border gradually. But UNHCR is also wary of becoming the sole party responsible for ensuring that migrants affected by Remain in Mexico are treated humanely and lawfully, arguing that the Mexican and US governments need to step up.

When it comes to putting pressure on the US government, the organization is in a delicate spot: It’s heavily reliant on the US to serve over 70 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide. The US contributed about $1.67 billion, or about 46 percent of the organization’s entire budget, this year (as of September). The organization says it is working on tapping new sources of funding among private and public donors. But for now, losing American support could mean risking the well-being of many more migrants worldwide.

Still, advocates argue, UN agencies could be doing more to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the policy. They could refer cases to legal service providers and advocate on behalf of migrants. And they could help the Mexican government, other international agencies, and nonprofits to make the camps safer and provide more services.

In their absence, nonprofits have been shouldering the bulk of that work.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis without a coordinated humanitarian response,” Ojeda said. “We recognize that this is a difficult political situation for UN agencies, but I believe they could be doing more.”

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