At least 41 migrants and refugees died in a fire in a migrant prison in Ciudad Juarez, near the United States border, on March 27.
Video footage shows guards fleeing the prison as the fire got worse, while leaving the migrants locked inside. Mexico’s interior security minister has confirmed the authenticity of the video. The remaining 27 who were locked inside at the time suffered severe injuries.
The migrants had lit mattresses on fire in protest at being detained and the conditions in the prison. Most of them had been detained that day by migration or security officials after they were found in the city streets asking for money or selling crafts.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador ultimately blamed the migrants for supposedly causing the tragedy. He has not yet remarked on the role of Mexico’s migration policy, nor the prison guards.
Conditions in Mexico’s migration prisons are notoriously bad. One person who worked in a prison near the US border testified anonymously that they recognised the buildings in the videos, and that often 100‒200 migrants are packed into a small area.
“There isn’t enough space for them all to sleep, they have to sleep piled on top of each other,” they wrote. Human rights organisations have also visited the Ciudad Juarez prison and found there is little ventilation or access to water.
US and Mexican migration policy
Despite the few COVID-19 restrictions currently in place within the US, the country has been using the pandemic as an excuse for applying its Title 42 policy to its land borders for the past three years. All refugees and migrants arriving at the Mexico-US border from Mexico, Haiti and Central and South America — who try to cross the border or are caught — are deported before they can request asylum.
Not allowing people to request asylum is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Refugee Convention — incorporated into US immigration law in 1980. Deporting people to countries where they would face torture or irreparable harm is also a violation of international human rights law.
The US has pressured Mexico to receive or deport the migrants it turns around, as well as to stop and deport migrants making their way through Mexico to the north.
Last year, the US deported 2.4 million refugees and migrants. People are fleeing climate-change inflicted disasters, extreme poverty exacerbated by droughts, flooding, and the pandemic, repression and persecution, violent criminal organisations, and more.
Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are stuck in cities near Mexico’s northern border, where they have been waiting for months and years, unable to formally work, attend school, and usually without funds for housing. In Tijuana alone, there are more than 15,000 migrants in the city — and non-profit shelters can only accommodate a third of those.
People will be protesting the incident in various cities around the country on March 29, under the slogans “Migrants aren’t illegal”, and “They aren’t shelters, they are prisons”. Most English and Spanish-language mainstream media, as well as government officials, have been referring to the detention centres as migrant shelters or centres. However migrant shelters in Mexico are run by volunteers or churches, aim to look after migrants, and people stay there voluntarily. People in the detention facilities are locked in, unable to communicate with lawyers or people outside, and almost always deported.
More than 200 organisations, as well as various networks and individuals signed a statement blaming the national government for the tragedy.
“The situation reflects the lack of a … public policy that guarantees the rights and protection of migrants and asylum seekers,” the statement noted.
[Tamara Pearson is a migrants rights activist in Puebla, Mexico, journalist and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog. Twitter: @pajaritaroja.]