(Washington, DC) – Mexico has been carrying out mass expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers of various nationalities to a remote area of the jungle in Guatemala, putting lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said today.
Those expelled include families and unaccompanied children, some of whom were first expelled by air from the United States. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and US President Joe Biden should immediately stop these dangerous and unlawful expulsions and ensure that future deportations are carried out in line with Mexican, US, and international law.
“Abandoning vulnerable families in the remote Guatemalan jungle without money, food, or shelter and ignoring their requests for asylum is a new low for President López Obrador,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “For years, the Mexican president has facilitated some of the United States’ most abusive anti-immigration policies. Now he has gone a step further, replicating those abusive policies on Mexico’s own southern border.”
In the beginning of August 2021, the United States began expelling some Central American migrants via air to two cities in southern Mexico – Tapachula, Chiapas, and Villahermosa, Tabasco – which are a relatively short drive away from the Guatemalan border.
Also in August, Mexican immigration authorities began busing at least 300 migrants of various nationalities each day, including some expelled from the United States and others apprehended in Mexico, to the Mexican side of the remote El Ceibo border crossing in the Lacandón Jungle. At times, the buses have arrived late at night. The authorities have then forced the migrants to cross the border by foot. Mexican authorities have also expelled groups of migrants this way through the border crossing in Talismán, Chiapas, also on Mexico’s southern border.
Mexican immigration agents have denied many of those expelled the chance to seek asylum and forced them to cross into Guatemala without notifying consular officials or the Guatemalan government. Some have been expelled while waiting on asylum applications in Mexico. Once on the other side of the border, many have had nowhere to sleep and no means of getting to their home countries.
On August 12, US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters that the United States was increasing its use of expulsion flights to Mexico’s interior under purported public health authority, to address “recidivism.” He also said the United States was urging Mexico to increase its interception of migrants. Since February the Biden administration has expelled more than 600,000 people at the border under an order issued under the administration of former President Donald Trump to justify expelling asylum seekers during the pandemic without giving them a chance to seek protection.
Some of those expelled have told humanitarian workers in Guatemala they had asked US and Mexican immigration agents for asylum but were told that would not be possible. Others have said they had already applied for or received asylum in Mexico, but that immigration agents told them their Mexican asylum documents were fake or invalid and sometimes confiscated and destroyed them, before detaining and expelling the asylum seekers. Many non-Guatemalans have told aid workers that Mexican immigration agents confiscated their identity documents before expelling them to Guatemala.
Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport. Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo, a remote village of just a few hundred people. The migrant shelter in El Ceibo can house about 30 people. A humanitarian worker said one woman who was expelled said that Mexican immigration agents told her group they were intentionally being taken “to the most remote border crossing” so they would “learn their lesson.”
In a statement on August 17, the Guatemalan Foreign Relations Ministry expressed concern that it had not been notified of the expulsions. It also reiterated that repatriations of Guatemalans should take place through the country’s dedicated Reception Centers in Guatemala City and Tecun Uman.
To corroborate media reports about the expulsions, Human Rights Watch interviewed representatives of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsperson’s office, who have been traveling regularly to El Ceibo and Talismán to witness the expulsions and speak with those expelled. Human Rights Watch also spoke with the head of the Belén migrant shelter, near the El Ceibo crossing, representatives of the Guatemalan immigration authority, representatives from a collective of Mexican migrant rights groups that operate along the border, the Guatemalan children’s organization Refugio de la Niñez, the Guatemalan Red Cross, and consulate staff from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in Mexico.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos and photographs of expulsions and copies of documents provided to the Guatemalan human rights ombudsperson’s office showing that some of those expelled from Mexico had pending asylum applications there. Human Rights Watch asked Mexican immigration authorities for comment but had received no reply as of September 7.
Some of those expelled told shelter workers, journalists, and representatives of Guatemala’s human rights ombudsperson’s office that US or Mexican immigration agents detained them and told them they would be taken to shelters to register their asylum applications. Others said they were told they would be sent to their home countries, which included Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala.
Instead, they were flown or taken by bus to Villahermosa, Tabasco, or Tapachula, Chiapas, and from there Mexican immigration agents immediately took them by bus to the border crossing and forced them to walk into Guatemala. Some said they had been given no information at all and did not know where they were being sent until they arrived in Guatemala.
Mexican authorities have been summarily expelling small groups of migrants into Guatemala since at least April, but began mass expulsions of hundreds of migrants at a time in August. Guatemalan immigration authorities said initially they could not register the number of expulsions due to their limited presence at the El Ceibo border crossing, where the vast majority are taking place. On August 22, they sent additional staff and began registering every expulsion.
From August 22 to August 29, they registered 2,061 people, including 564 children. A humanitarian organization providing support at the border has recorded 5 unaccompanied children. Guatemalan immigration authorities are not sure how many migrants have been expelled through Talismán.
As of August 30, Guatemalan immigration authorities had begun coordinating with civil society groups to receive expelled migrants, conduct medical checks, and, in some cases, provide them with onward transport.
Mexican immigration authorities have expelled groups of migrants and asylum seekers into Guatemala through the Talismán-El Carmen border crossing three times in August. On August 9, 10, and 18, migrants were taken via plane from the United States and northern Mexico to Tapachula, Chiapas state. From there, Mexican immigration agents and the National Guard took them by bus to the Talismán-El Carmen border crossing and forced them to walk into Guatemala.
On September 2, the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it had reached an agreement so that the US government would repatriate Guatemalans via air to Guatemala City. It also announced it had reached an agreement to allow the Mexican government to repatriate Salvadorans and Hondurans to their countries by bus, travelling through Guatemala. On September 4, the Guatemalan immigration authority said in a statement that expulsions from Mexico through El Ceibo would continue for another 30 days. It did not explain whether non-Guatemalans who are expelled by the Mexican government will be given the chance to seek asylum in Mexico. Nor did they explain whether expulsions of asylum seekers other than of those three nationalities will continue. Guatemalan immigration and human rights authorities reported asylum seekers of 10 nationalities expelled to Guatemala. These announcements raise more questions, including whether the Guatemalan government plans to actively participate in these abusive expulsions, Human Rights Watch said.
Under Mexican law, immigration authorities are required to tell anyone in their custody where and why they are being detained, and to provide information in writing about the right to apply for asylum or other regular legal status in Mexico. They also should allow anyone subject to deportation proceedings to speak with their consulate, receive legal advice, communicate with their family, and appeal the deportation decision.
Mexican immigration authorities may only return migrants to their home country – not send them to a third country – and they are required to notify and coordinate with the receiving country’s government and provide transportation, food, and water for returnees until they reach their home country. Finally, they are prohibited from deporting anyone who has requested or been granted asylum in Mexico.
The right to seek asylum is a core principle of international human rights law. Everyone seeking international protection has the right to apply for asylum abroad and to have their case heard before the appropriate authorities. Expelling asylum seekers without allowing them to make their claims violates the Refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights, all treaties to which Mexico is a party. The American Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, to which Mexico is a party, also explicitly prohibit collective expulsions.
"The Biden administration promised more humane and fair policies for asylum seekers at US borders," said Clara Long, US associate director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead, the administration is expelling asylum seekers without giving them a chance to seek protection and is implicated in dangerous Mexican return practices. The Biden administration needs to change course now.”