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Clothing hangs to dry at a makeshift migrant camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on March 1, 2020.  © 2020 Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, known as “Remain in Mexico,” is driving asylum seekers to stay in unhygienic camps and shelters in Mexican border cities where they are at heightened risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus, Human Rights Watch said today. Additionally, the United States announced new travel restrictions on March 20, 2020 that would allow US border agents to deny entry to people who previously may have been held in border detention centers in the US, including unaccompanied children and other asylum seekers, trying to cross the border.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should immediately end the MPP program and reverse the new travel restrictions, Human Rights Watch said. Asylum seekers removed from the MPP program should not be detained, but rather paroled into the United States with quarantine or other measures as necessary for public health. Any policies closing the border to asylum seekers would violate US and international rights obligations.

“The US government is pushing people who are in the process of seeking asylum, including children, to live in unhygienic conditions that unnecessarily increase their risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US has an obligation under international law not to compel people to risk their right to life in order to pursue their right to seek asylum.”

Under the MPP program, non-Mexican asylum seekers in the United States are returned to cities in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings in US immigration courts, where they often appear in mass group hearings. Immigration attorneys, judges, and prosecutors have called for the Department of Justice to suspend immigration court hearings to protect public health. Immigration courts have since announced that all MPP hearings scheduled through May 1 will be rescheduled, effectively stranding asylum seekers in the program in Mexico.

Human Rights Watch found the camps and shelters along the border are often overcrowded, so that people living in close contact with one another are forced to share very limited, rudimentary sanitation facilities. They also often lack clean running water sufficient to follow the basic hygiene recommendations put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), other public health entities, and human rights experts.

About 2,500 asylum seekers are crowded together in this makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, November 5, 2019, just feet away from a US port of entry.  © 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, recently expressed deep concern about those living in informal settlements and emergency shelters: “Housing has become the front-line defense against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

The Department of Homeland Security should ensure asylum seekers currently subjected to the MPP program are quickly paroled into the United States where they can first undergo public health screening and appropriate quarantine as warranted by public health standards. They should then be allowed to safely join family members and existing networks of support, following government “shelter in place” guidelines applicable to the general population. They could be required to maintain “check-ins” as part of their parole to ensure appearances at immigration proceedings, recognizing that public health concerns may dictate such interactions will be conducted in ways that minimize physical contact.

Relying on faulty information provided by DHS, the CDC director, Robert Redfield, mistakenly claimed in his order authorizing the asylum ban that it was necessary for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to deny entry to migrants, because border agents could not reasonably release people from crowded Points of Entry or Border Control Stations as “many of the aliens covered by this order may lack homes or other places in the United States where they can self-isolate, and CDC lacks the resources and personnel necessary to effectively monitor such a large number of persons.” However, a recent study shows 91.9 percent of asylum seekers have family or close friends in the United States. For those asylum seekers who do not have family or friends with a known address willing and able to shelter them, the federal government should provide safe and decent accommodations where they can be sheltered in place until their claims and immigration status are finally decided, or the public health advisories have been lifted.  

Many of those waiting for their US immigration court hearings are homeless in Mexico and have little access to health care. For example, Human Rights Watch found that in Matamoros, Mexico, just across from a US port of entry, about 2,500 asylum seekers live back-to-back in tents holding up to five people each with only a handful of outdoor showers and portable restrooms that have at times overflowed with human waste.

Portable bathrooms overflow with human waste at a makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on November 5, 2019.  © 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

An outbreak of COVID-19 in such conditions would spread rapidly and could prove deadly.

Under the new travel restrictions, asylum seekers are not being provided with the legal protections designed to ensure they are not returned to a threat of persecution; CBP agents have been empowered to “expeditiously expel” to Mexico or their country of origin migrants encountered between ports of entry, including unaccompanied children. Human Rights Watch has previously witnessed and documented CBP agents performing illegal “turnbacks” of migrants exercising their right to seek asylum, including unaccompanied children, and has found agents have failed to refer those who have expressed credible fear for interviews with asylum officers, and instead, rapidly deported them to potential danger. Giving CBP agents even greater power to unilaterally and summarily decide claims under the travel restrictions will very likely risk further wrongful return of people who may be refugees.

Even in times of emergency, governments remain obliged to protect refugees from return to a threat of persecution, exposure to inhuman and degrading conditions, or threats to life and physical security. Health workers have said that an outbreak of COVID-19 in camps and shelters is inevitable, meaning asylum seekers face a real risk of life-threatening disease. Paroling asylum seekers into the United States would respect the right of anyone to seek asylum without compelling asylum seekers to choose between seeking protection from serious harm in their home countries or being exposed to potentially life-threatening conditions in Mexico. Rational, evidence-based quarantine measures to protect public health are not in conflict with the right to seek asylum but rejecting asylum seekers at borders and pushing them back to face threats to their lives is.

The DHS-proposed rule that accompanies the new travel restrictions outlining “essential” and “non-essential” travel at the US-Mexico border fails to account for the travel of refugees fleeing persecution. Such travel is fundamentally the most essential, as it can mean the difference between life or death.

People with certain disabilities and chronic health conditions are particularly at risk of COVID-19, and border agents have continued to send people with disabilities and chronic health conditions to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. Human Rights Watch found that Mexico failed to consistently identify or provide appropriate support to such people, including access to health care. Asylum seekers with underlying health conditions are at particular risk of serious illness from a COVID-19 infection.

Customs and Border Protection has also sent several pregnant women – another high-risk population – to Mexico under the program. Older asylum seekers with underlying health conditions are also disproportionately impacted.

MPP hearings themselves have not been conducted in accordance with public health standards. After the US government, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, shut down mass immigration court hearings throughout the United States for immigrants who are not detained, some hearings for asylum seekers in the MPP program continued, along with those for detained migrants. Those hearings are held en masse in small courtrooms where asylum seekers are crammed into rows of benches side-by-side or else in small lobbies where they are made to wait for hours. Asylum seekers should have the venue for their immigration proceedings changed to the court located nearest to the US community where their support family networks reside.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, released guidance on March 16 calling for border measures relating to COVID-19 to be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. Any “blanket measure” to preclude the admission of refugees and asylum seekers would not meet this standard, UNHCR said.

Human Rights Watch has called for the US government to release people in immigration detention who are at high risk of serious effects from COVID-19 with appropriate measures, including non-discriminatory quarantine, as necessary and proportional to ensure public health.

“The pandemic has laid bare the added dangers faced by asylum seekers placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program,” Sawyer said. “The US can best meet its obligations to protect public health, refugees, and the right to seek asylum by fully ending ‘Remain in Mexico’ now.”

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