Mexico City – Central American children fleeing serious threats face formidable obstacles in applying for asylum in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 151-page report, “Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children,” documents wide discrepancies between Mexican law and practice. By law, Mexico offers protection to those who face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin. But less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees, according to Mexican government data.
“On paper, Mexican law appears to provide every protection for children who have fled their home countries in fear of their lives,” said Michael Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “But only a handful actually receive asylum, reflecting that even though Central American children and adults face serious threats, the government is not giving adequate consideration to their claims.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 61 children and more than 100 adults who had traveled to Mexico from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Mexican government officials; representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency; and representatives of nongovernmental organizations; and reviewed case files and data collected by Mexico’s immigration and refugee protection agencies.
These findings come at a time when the number of undocumented children apprehended by Mexican authorities has been sharply increasing. Mexican immigration authorities apprehended more than 35,000 children in 2015, nearly 55 percent more than in 2014, and 270 percent more than in 2013.
These increases are in part a reflection of surging United States government financial support for immigration enforcement by Mexico starting in mid-2014, when record numbers of Central Americans, including unaccompanied children and families with children, began to arrive in the US.
Gang violence has plagued Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for more than a decade, and gangs in these three countries often target children.
Many of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they were pressured to join gangs, often under threat of harm or death to themselves or to family members. Girls face particular risk of sexual violence and assault by gang members. Other children gave accounts of being held for ransom or targeted for extortion.
Gabriel R., a 15-year-old from the Honduran department of Cortés, told Human Rights Watch: “I was in school, in the ninth grade. One day the gang came up to me near the school where I was studying. They told me that I needed to join the gang. They gave me three days. If I didn’t join them, they’d kill me.” He left for Mexico on his own in May 2015, before the three days were up.
But when the children flee to Mexico, immigration agents frequently do not inform them of their right to seek asylum or screen them to determine whether they may have viable refugee claims, Human Rights Watch found.
Children who apply for asylum are not guaranteed legal or other assistance unless they are fortunate enough to be represented by one of the handful of nongovernmental organizations that provide legal assistance to asylum seekers. Asylum processes are not designed with children in mind and are frequently confusing to them.
Children who wish to apply for asylum also face the threat of prolonged detention. Several children told Human Rights Watch that immigration agents warned them that merely applying for asylum would result in protracted detention. Human Rights Watch also spoke with several children and parents who decided not to apply or who withdrew applications, accepting returns to their home countries despite the risks because they did not want to remain locked up.
Mexican law provides that unaccompanied children should be transferred to the custody of Mexico’s child protection system and should be detained only in exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, detention of migrant children is the rule.
Even children lucky enough to land in shelters run by the country’s child protection agency experience a form of detention. They do not attend local schools and have few contacts with the community. Unless they need specialized medical care, they remain within the four walls of the shelter for the duration of their stay.
Under international standards, children should not be detained as a means of immigration control; instead, countries should “expeditiously and completely cease the detention of children on the basis of their immigration status,” as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated. Mexico has an obligation to provide these children with appropriate care and protection in suitable settings.
Mexico has a right to control its borders, but migrant children should not be held in detention. Mexico can provide appropriate care and protection to unaccompanied and separated children in a variety of ways, whether by housing children with families or in state or privately run facilities. While some may need to be housed in closed facilities, locking children up in prison-like settings does not meet international standards, Human Rights Watch said.
Mexico should ensure that children have effective access to refugee recognition procedures, including appropriate legal and other assistance. The government should also expand the capacity of its refugee agency, including by establishing a presence across Mexico’s southern border.
The US government, which has pressured Mexico to interdict Central Americans, should provide additional funding and support to improve and expand Mexico’s capacity to process asylum claims and to provide social support for asylum seekers and refugees. The US government should link funding of Mexican entities engaged in immigration and border control to their demonstrated compliance with national and international human rights standards.
The US government should also expand its Central American Minors Program to allow children to apply from Mexico and other countries where they have sought safety, and to allow applications based on a relationship to extended family members, not only parents, in the US.
“Putting children in a position in which they think they have to choose between months in detention or being returned to danger violates common decency as well as Mexican and international law,” Bochenek said. “Both Mexico and the US should work to provide appropriate care and a reasonable opportunity to apply for protection for children fleeing danger in Central America.”