Migrants are guided by the Mexican authorities through the Ceibo border crossing between Guatemala and México on January 19, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Jair Cabrera Torres
(New York) – Mexican authorities should comply with their international legal obligation to urgently release migrants if they can no longer be deported to their country of origin or are being held in arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Such releases are not only in line with international human rights law, but also critical to reduce the risk that migrants face in detention centers unable to ensure protection from transmission of the new coronavirus.

Since March 23, 2020, detainees in five migrant detention centers in Mexico have protested, demanding to be released over fears that overcrowding and unhygienic conditions put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Hondurans and Salvadorans cannot currently be returned to their countries because of border closures, leaving them detained arbitrarily, in violation of international law. The protests led to clashes with dozens of injuries and at least one death; in some cases, migrants reported that security forces used excessive force.

“Thousands of migrants are being held in Mexico in inhumane and unhygienic conditions in the middle of a global pandemic,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “To stop the spread of COVID-19 inside and outside Mexico’s migrant detention facilities, the Mexican government should immediately release or find alternatives to detention for at least the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic for any migrants it cannot repatriate.”

On March 31, a representative of the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) told Human Rights Watch that about 2,600 of the 4,000 people in Mexico’s migrant detention centers nationwide were Hondurans and Salvadorans who could not be repatriated due to travel restrictions put in place by the Honduran and El Salvadoran governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 15,  Honduras closed its land, sea, and air borders to transit passengers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two days later, El Salvador did the same. While these governments indicated their citizens would be able to enter, the INM representative told Human Rights Watch that the Mexican government has been unable to reach an agreement to resume repatriation of Hondurans and Salvadorans.

Administrative detention of a migrant must be applied as an exceptional measure of last resort, for the shortest period, and only “if justified by a legitimate purpose,” such as imminent removal from the country, according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. If that purpose becomes impossible for any reason outside the detained person’s control, “including non-cooperation of the consular representation of the country of origin,” the detainee “must be released to avoid potentially indefinite detention from occurring, which would be arbitrary.”

On March 23, a group of mostly Honduran and Salvadoran detainees at Siglo XXI migrant detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas state, began a protest and hunger strike demanding that Mexican officials either repatriate them or release them in the face of potentially arbitrary detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. A representative from the local group Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, who interviewed seven detainees, told Human Rights Watch that the detainees said that security forces responded violently, with hoses, tasers, teargas, and nightsticks. Those interviewed said that security forces beat some detainees, causing injuries and leaving at least one person unconscious.

On March 31, a similar group at the migrant detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco state, protested, starting a fire and demanding to be released, in the face of arbitrary detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protestors complained of extreme overcrowding at the facility. As a result of the fire, fourteen were injured and one, a Héctor Rolando Barrientos Dardón, 42, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, died from asphyxiation. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) which treated and interviewed 44 detainees after the fire, the center had 170 people, but a maximum capacity of 100. MSF also reported treating many detainees with fever and respiratory symptoms who had not been tested for COVID-19, received medical attention, or been isolated in detention.

Since late March, similar protests have been reported at migrant detention centers in Hermosillo, Sonora; Piedras Negras, Coahuila; and Villahermosa, Tabasco.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance on COVID-19 and places of detention says that “[P]eople deprived of their liberty … are likely to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak than the general population because of the confined conditions in which they live together for prolonged periods of time.” The organization also says that detention centers “may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases” to the general population if proper protections are not put in place to ensure that detention facility staff and detained people are protected.

The unhygienic conditions and inadequate medical attention in Mexico’s migrant detention centers are well documented. With hundreds of people sleeping and eating in the same space and sharing bathroom facilities, it is nearly impossible to take basic measures to prevent an outbreak, such as social distancing and isolation of people with symptoms. Once COVID-19 enters migrant detention centers, it could quickly spread, infecting detainees and staff, who would bring the disease into the surrounding community.

On March 25, the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture called on governments to “reduce … detention populations wherever possible” and “[r]eview the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps with a view to reducing their population to the lowest possible level” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tabasco State Prosecutor’s office and the National Human Rights Commission have begun an investigation into Barrientos Dardón’s death. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have called for an investigation into this case and for Mexico to release “those detained without sufficient legal justification.”

The Mexican National Migration Institute and the National Guard should fully cooperate with the investigation. Mexican authorities should also conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the other incidents of possible excessive use of force by members of the National Guard, Human Rights Watch said.

“President López Obrador cannot claim that his administration ‘takes care to respect the human rights’ of its ‘Central American migrant brothers’ while enforcing policies that blatantly violate Mexico’s obligations toward migrants under international human rights law with total disregard for their health and dignity,” Vivanco said.