A group of migrants eat cookies while waiting their turn to be served by Mexican immigration authorities to apply for asylum on December 3, 2018 in Mexicali, Mexico. (Shutterstock)
By Tom Phillips, The Guardian
The incoming US president, Joe Biden, has been urged to scrap a “devastating” migration program that activists say has exposed tens of thousands of asylum seekers – many of them children – to violence, abduction and rape in some of the world’s most dangerous cities.
The Trump administration created the “Remain in Mexico” program in January 2019 in an effort to deter asylum seekers trying to enter the US through is southern border.
The initiative – which is officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – stipulated that asylum seekers would have to await their court hearings in Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali and Matamoros, and not in the US as before.
But activists claimed that exposed highly vulnerable migrants, mostly from Central and South America, to physical harm and illness in unfamiliar and dangerous surroundings with some of the highest murder rates on Earth.
In a report published on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch described how Trump’s policy “needlessly and foreseeably exposed [asylum seekers] to considerable risk of serious harm”.
The group said those interviewed for its report, including children, “described rape or attempted rape and other sexual assault, abduction for ransom, extortion, armed robbery, and other crimes committed against them”.
“In some cases, Mexican immigration officers or police committed these crimes,” the group added.
Michael Garcia Bochenek, Human Right Watch’s senior children’s rights counsel, said its researchers had heard “really devastating” testimony from asylum seekers about their plight back in Mexico. He said the interviews had left him impressed with the resilience of those affected but “completely devastated about what the US government was doing to people”.
“The really shocking thing given the consistent reports of really, really serious risk to people who are placed in the MPP – or returned to Mexico after attending hearings in the US – is that US authorities have continued to place people in the MPP, including through the pandemic, and have consistently refused to pull people out of the [program] when they present proof of these harms,” Bochenek said.
“I can’t help drawing parallels to other contexts that I’ve seen,” he added, citing Australia’s longer-lasting offshore detention scheme.
“There’s a similarity there. The offloading of people who are only traveling to a country to seek safety – and not only offloading them but deliberately, or at least knowingly subjecting them to harm.”
Donald Trump defended policies such as Remain in Mexico – which has sent more than 69,000 people back over the border, sometimes into ramshackle refugee camps – as a way to protect US citizens from “thugs” and “bad hombres”.
Biden has pledged to scrap the program but, apparently wary of triggering a sudden surge of border arrivals, members of his transition team have sought to lower expectations they will do so immediately.
In a recent interview with the Spanish language news agency Efe, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, said: “Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on Day 1. It will not.”
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told Efe that Remain in Mexico had “been a disaster from the start and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico”. “But putting the new policy into practice will take time,” he added.
Bochenek said campaigners did not want to see “a rush to the border” after Biden took office. “But it is reasonable to expect a managed and orderly wind-down of the [MPP] system.
“It doesn’t need to take months. That can be done in relatively short order with the proper planning,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we can take the [Biden] campaign promises at face value and see the kind of orderly yet expeditious end to the program that we are hoping for.”