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July 18, 2017

Dangerous Territory: Mexico Still Not Safe for Refugees

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Earlier this year the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies advanced proposals to foist U.S. refugee protection obligations onto Mexico and to block from the United States non-Mexican refugees and asylum seekers who pass through Mexico. These moves would undermine U.S. global leadership and violate American legal commitments even if Mexico had a strong refugee protection system. They are all the more dangerous because Mexico doesn’t. Amid mass displacement caused by rampant human rights abuses and violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America, these proposals would force thousands of refugees to return to or remain in a country deeply unsafe for them.

President Trump’s January 25th Executive Order “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” proposed to return some border arrivals to “contiguous territories,” such as Mexico, while they await U.S. immigration court removal hearings. In the wake of this order and the President’s other executive order relating to refugees, some U.S. agents on the southern border have told people seeking protection that the United States is no longer accepting asylum seekers and, as documented in a May 2017 Human Rights First report, illegally turned some away in violation of U.S. law and treaties.

In addition, legislative proposals would change U.S. law to require asylum denials to many refugees who travel through Mexico, even if they lack actual protection there, and allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to declare Mexico a “safe third country” to which the United States would return refugees, barring them from seeking protection through the U.S. asylum process.

In April 2017, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray announced that Mexico wouldn’t accept non-Mexicans turned away or removed from the United States. Yet the United States continues to press Mexico to “manage” the border without any public affirmation of the importance of international law and treaty commitments that prohibit the return of refugees to persecution. At the June 2017 “Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America” in Miami, Mexican and U.S. authorities agreed to “explore enhancements to border security,” again without mentioning refugee protection.

To assess the degree of refugee protection in Mexico and determine how to improve it regionally, Human Rights First researchers traveled to Mexico in June 2017. They interviewed human rights monitors, nonprofit lawyers, U.N. staff, other aid agency staff, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), Mexico’s asylum adjudication agency, and the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). (Their request to meet with the National Institute of Migration (INM), Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency, went unanswered.) Human Rights First also gathered information from refugees, attorneys, and aid workers during visits to Mexico in March and May 2017, and from refugees who, after passing through Mexico, received assistance through Human Rights First’s pro bono legal representation program.

Human Rights First has concluded that Mexico is far from a “safe third country” for refugees. 

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