Press Release

IACHR Expresses Deep Concern about the Situation of Migrants and Refugees in the United States, Mexico, and Central America

July 23, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern about the situation of migrants and refugees in the United States, Mexico, and Central America, especially because of the recent policies and measures adopted by States on migration and asylum; the securitization, militarization, and externalization of the borders; as well as the criminalization of defenders of the human rights of migrants and refugees. The Commission urges the States of the region to respect and guarantee the rights of migrants and refugees, as well as those of the defenders of their human rights.

In recent years, the IACHR has observed the increasing migration of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, who seek to reach the United States and, to a lesser extent, Mexico. One of the factors that has contributed to this increase are the so-called “migrant caravans”, which include people in need of protection, like asylum seekers, refugees, families, mothers, women, children, and adolescents, in particular those traveling alone, among others. According to the Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the IACHR notes that at the end of 2018 there were 314,946 asylum seekers and 72,229 refugees from these countries worldwide and recognizes the complexities and challenges posed by the mass arrival of people in the context of mixed migratory movements.

The IACHR has observed that, in response to this situation, the United States of America and the United States of Mexico have been jointly implementing policies and practices on migration and asylum, which are having direct impacts on the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. In this regard, following the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” program, the United States has returned more than 10,000 people to Mexico to wait while their immigration and asylum procedures are realized. Likewise, both countries have collaborated by coordinating appointments to initiate asylum proceedings, resulting in more than 18,778 people waiting at a border entry port in Mexico at the beginning of June to present their asylum application to the United States.

The Commission notes that these policies are contrary to both countries’ obligations in the area of human rights, particularly in regards to the right to request and receive asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, given that, among other things, they expose these people to numerous risks, which include extortion, kidnapping, and other acts of violence at the hands of criminal organizations and common criminals found in the areas where these people are being returned, as well as the lack of access to basic services. The IACHR urges the States of the region to take urgent and comprehensive measures to guarantee secure pathways for people seeking international protection. In addition, the IACHR received information about difficulties migrants and asylum seekers experienced under this program in guaranteeing their right to due process and judicial protection, given that they had to wait several months in Mexico until their hearings in the United States, as well as in accessing the courts and obtaining legal representation. According to official information, from January to July of this year, Mexico has received more than 30,000 applications for refugee status.

The IACHR has also received information on cases of family separation under the “Remain in Mexico” program, in which the fathers and/or mothers stay in Mexico while their children are sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the United States of America. The IACHR reiterates that the right to non-refoulement prohibits expelling or returning people to situation where their rights to life, personal integrity, and other human rights are at risk. The IACHR reiterates that the separation of children and separate questioning or processing of children without their parents or guardians being present is contrary to the norms and standards of international law and the inter-American human rights system and calls on the United States to immediately cease any practice aimed at separating children from their parents or guardians as a measure to deter migration.

Similarly, the IACHR takes note of the United States’ announcement at the end of May to impose tariffs on Mexican products if Mexico did not slow down migration to the United States. As a result of the announcement made by the United States government, on June 7, 2019, both countries signed an agreement. At the same time, the IACHR observes that, following said announcement, the Mexican State reported that it had deported 39,653 migrants in the first four months of 2019 and had dispatched 6,000 members of the National Guard to the border with Guatemala in order to strengthen its southern border. The IACHR expresses its concern regarding the impact generated by the possibility of imposing any type of commercial reprisal between two countries on the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, whose vulnerability increases as a result.

In addition, on May 31, U.S. government announced that it would deploy dozens of Department of Homeland Security agents to the northern border of Guatemala with Mexico to help Guatemalan authorities stop the Central American migratory exodus to the United States at its source. More recently, in mid-June 2019, the United States government cut financial assistance funds for the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America. In accordance with international and inter-American standards of International Human Rights Law, all persons have the right to freely leave any country, including their own; as well as the right to request and receive asylum and the protection of their right and principle of non-refoulement. The Commission views with extreme concern the militarization of the borders and calls on the States to ensure that the measures they implement, including those related to economic matters, are aimed at respecting and guaranteeing the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Recently, the IACHR also took note of the information regarding the negotiations that are underway between the United States and Guatemala to establish a safe third-country agreement. If the agreement is signed, people who have passed through Guatemala could not apply for asylum in the United States and asylum seekers arriving at the United States border to request asylum would be returned to Guatemala or their countries of origin. The acts of violence and human rights violations that the IACHR has monitored through its visits, country reports, and other monitoring mechanisms regarding Guatemala and Mexico in recent years show that these countries would not comply with conditions necessary to offer the security guarantees that a safe third country must guarantee. This agreement could increase the conditions of vulnerability for migrants and refugees and could expose them to greater risks than those that led them to move originally. The Commission also notes that, on July 14, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court granted an injunction stopping the President from signing a safe third country agreement with the United States of America.

In addition, the IACHR expresses its deep concern over an interim rule announced by the United States on July 15 that will bar many migrants from requesting asylum. This rule states that “with limited exceptions, an alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border after failing to apply for protection in a third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which the alien transited en route to the United States is ineligible for asylum”. Considering the gravity and multitude of factors that force migrants from Central America to flee their countries, ranging from gruesome acts of violence and extreme economic and environmental deprivation, the IACHR considers this rule to be contrary to the human right to seek and receive asylum, the protection from refoulement and contravenes international and inter-American norms and standards. The IACHR reiterates that any unilateral, bilateral or multilateral act adopted by a State in relation to migration or asylum must be in line with its international and inter-American obligations. Any act that is in contravention with these obligations will entail the international responsibility of that State.

The IACHR also expresses its concern for the death of five migrant children from Guatemala and one from El Salvador in custody of the U.S. since September. The IACHR has already expressed its concern over the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquín and Felipe Gómez Vásquez, to which have been added those of Juan de León Gutiérrez, Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, and a 10-year-old Salvadorian girl, who died under the custody of United States authorities. In addition to these grave occurrences, there is the tragic death on June 24 of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez and his 23-month- old daughter Valeria, from El Salvador, who drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande to reach the United States of America. The IACHR urges the United States to investigate the circumstances that led to these deaths and to take all necessary measures to respect and guarantee the rights to life, personal integrity, and health of migrants and refugees.

In turn, the IACHR reiterates that States cannot resort to the deprivation of liberty of children or adolescents who are with their parents, as well as those who are unaccompanied or who have been separated from their parents, in order to prevent them from migrating, nor can they base such arrests of children on the failure to comply with the requirements to enter and remain in the country, on the fact that the child is alone or has been separated from their family, or on the goal of guaranteeing that the family is reunited. The detention of migrant children is never in their best interests and therefore the States must adopt measures to guarantee their personal freedom.

“The deaths of children that were seeking protection or a better future are tragedies that remind us of the horrible consequences of treating migration as a public security issue instead of a human rights issue. States must put an end to the detention of migrant children and adolescents”, said Commissioner Esmeralda de Troitiño, President of the IACHR and Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child.

The Commission received additional information indicating that there is overcrowding and poor detention conditions in Mexican migratory centers and temporary shelters, as well as the detention of children and adolescents in Mexico. According to official information, the Mexican State reported that due to the arrival of mass migratory movements it exceeded its installed capacity and that additional human and financial resources have been allocated to improve the conditions of these shelters and to provide assistance to migrants, including groups in vulnerable situations.

For its part, on July 2, the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security published a report on the overcrowded, poorly nourished, and unsanitary conditions in migrant detention centers. The IACHR urges the States to avoid the use of immigration detention for punitive purposes and as an automatic and generalized way to respond to migratory movements. The IACHR recalls that the detention of migrants must be a measure of last resort, which can only be resorted to for the shortest possible time in compliance with the principles of exceptionality, necessity, and proportionality, with conditions worthy of detention, and that under no circumstances can children and adolescents and their families be detained.

The IACHR also expresses its concern with the rise of measures taken by the United States and Mexico aimed at criminalizing human rights defenders who provide assistance to migrants and refugees. The IACHR observes that on June 5, 2019, defenders of the human rights of migrants Cristóbal Sánchez and Irineo Mujica were arrested and accused of smuggling of migrants. According to the available information, on June 11, these people were freed by order of a judge in Chiapas, due to lack of sufficient evidence.  The IACHR expresses its concern over the harassment of persons who help migrants and refugees and urges authorities in transit and destination countries to take urgent measures to protect and legitimize the work of human rights defenders.

In this regard, in the United States, Scott Warren, a university professor and member of the civil society organization “No More Deaths”, faced three felony charges for offering water, food, clean clothes, and a bed to migrants in Ajo, Arizona, actions for which he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if declared guilty. On June 11, 2019 a judged declared a hung jury after the jury failed to reach a verdict. On July 3, the government announced that it would prosecute Warren again in November. The Commission calls on the States to respect and guarantee the right to defend human rights and, therefore, to not criminalize human rights defenders for the work they perform or those who provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees.

Finally, the IACHR notes that, on May 20, 2019, the Mexican State presented the Guatemala-Honduras-El Salvador-Mexico Comprehensive Development Program, developed in collaboration with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and 16 United Nations agencies. The IACHR considers it positive that measures be implemented to address the structural causes of forced migration, such as promoting development and dignified living conditions for all people in their communities of origin. In view of the complex situation faced by the origin countries of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, the aforementioned measures should go hand in hand with guaranteeing the human rights of these persons, in particular the right of persons to freely leave any country, the right to request and receive asylum and the right and principle of non-refoulement, as well as with creating regular, safe, accessible and affordable migration pathways. These pathways must be accessible in economic and legal terms, which includes ensuring that they are also accessible to people in poverty, as well as those who, for reasons beyond their control, do not have the documentation usually required for these procedures.

In turn, official information provided by the United States government, highlights the importance that United States gives to the actions that States have been taking jointly in the implementation of the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (CRRF, or MIRPS for its acronym in Spanish), aimed at developing a comprehensive framework for refugee response and encouraging greater regional cooperation in responding to the challenges generated by forced displacement. The IACHR emphasizes the importance of cooperation and shared responsibility in States’ responses to transnational issues like how to approach migration and the need for these responses to be based on the protection of the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; the participation and leadership of States, civil society organizations, academia, the media, the private sector, international organizations and the people themselves to whom these measures are directed and, above all, the political will to put them into practice.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 180/19