People face dire conditions on a roadside in Tapachula, where they are waiting for transport to other parts of Mexico.
Tapachula, Mexico – “It’s not that we want to be here, but we have no way out of this.”
That is how Rosita, a 48-year-old Haitian mother of two, described her situation last week, sitting on the side of a busy highway in southern Mexico where she, along with about 3,000 other Haitians, have been sleeping for days.
The queue formed outside a support centre for migrants in Tapachula, a key migration point in Mexico’s southeastern Chiapas state, when Mexican migration officials from the National Institute of Migration (INM) promised free transport to other cities in Mexico.
The second half of 2021 saw an exponential increase in undocumented migrants arriving in Tapachula. Without official permission to be in the country, they were unable to move north for fear of being detained at an INM checkpoint and ultimately deported. Those who choose to apply for asylum – and thus a temporary right to remain in Mexico while their application is being considered – are limited to the state in which they have applied.
INM, the Mexican migration authorities, initiated the relocation programme in an effort this month to clear a local stadium where asylum seekers had camped out after migration services in Chiapas became overloaded due to a surge in the number of Haitian asylum seekers arriving.
An INM official told Al Jazeera in a statement that “migrants in a vulnerable condition are provided with the support of buses, to transport them to another part of Mexico where they can regularise their migration status, not to transfer them to the border with the United States”.
It remains unclear where exactly in Mexico the buses are going, however, or how many people will be moved to other municipalities. But most of the Haitian asylum seekers, many of whom have been waiting in southern Mexico for months for their immigration claims to be processed, have said they want the chance to move to a different city in Mexico in hopes it will be easier to find work.
Rosita said she spent three years in Chile before making her way to Mexico, finally arriving in Tapachula in October. She had been unemployed in Chile and also in Tapachula, where her family has had to survive off only her husband’s irregular income.
“We have nowhere to live. We have no money to pay the rent,” Rosita – who spoke to Al Jazeera using only her first name for fear it would affect her immigration status – told Al Jazeera in broken Spanish with a thick Creole accent, wobbling slightly.
In explanation, she lifted her black-and-white striped dress to reveal a badly swollen knee, blaming the journey from Chile that she made on foot and on public transport. As Rosita spoke, her husband, sitting in the shade of cotton sheets held up by thick, wooden poles, kept their place in the queue amid a patchwork of blankets, plastic bottles, backpacks, and food containers.
Asylum seekers and migrants travelling in Mexico without the legal right to be in the country can be arrested or deported. But thousands have sought entry into the country in recent months as part of a surge in migration in the region and rising numbers of people seeking to enter the US.
The number of Haitians claiming asylum in Mexico increased more than seven-fold between 2020 and 2021, from 5,935 claims for all of 2020 to 47,494 between January and November 2021. The INM also recorded a substantial increase in Haitian nationals entering the country outside official ports of entry – from 3,891 in 2019, to 17,516 from January to October of this year.
The government’s bussing programme also comes at a time when the US is restarting a policy known as “Remain in Mexico“, under which asylum seekers can be sent to Mexico to wait for their US immigration hearings. Rights groups have lambasted that programme as one that puts people at risk in violence-ridden Mexican border towns.
A senior INM official in Tapachula, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said priority to get on the buses “is given to the population that causes the most disruption”. The official said that when the roads are blocked, “it causes maximum disruption”, and so those migrants are then prioritised.
The United Nations agencies with a presence in Tapachula – the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) – both said they have not been involved in, nor received any information about, the running of the programme.
Alma Delia Cruz Marquez, head of the Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), the Mexican government agency that processes asylum claims, told Al Jazeera that COMAR, in coordination with UNHCR, is “ready to receive information from INM to enable them to process the requests for asylum that will no doubt arrive in the different states”.
About 10,000 migrants of all nationalities spent time sleeping outside the Olympic Stadium in Tapachula earlier this year as they waited for their asylum requests to be processed, according to estimates by local migration support groups.
But sanitary conditions there deteriorated, and INM cleared the stadium starting on December 7, forcing people to try to find alternative places to stay. The Tapachula Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
“The residents of the [stadium] were sleeping surrounded by rubbish and the smell of urine had become toxic,” said Yamel Athie, a psychologist with Yo Te Cuido Tapachula (“I take care of you Tapachula”), a group supporting migrants in Tapachula with food and other necessities.
But once in the queue in Tapachula, the asylum seekers say they have had no opportunity to leave amid concerns they will miss a bus or lose their spots.
The group, which included pregnant women and infants as young as 15 days old when Al Jazeera visited on December 14 and 15, has been sleeping close to a constant flow of traffic without immediate access to water, food, shade, medical services or other facilities.
“The situation that these children are in is worrying,” said Isabel Valesco Luna, head of UNICEF’s office in Chiapas, who estimated that children made up about a third of the population in the queue last week. “They are in the sun all day in conditions that lack hygiene,” she told Al Jazeera.
Athie also expressed serious concerns about the “dehumanisation” of people forced to wait, deploring that it was becoming “acceptable for children to live in these dirty conditions”.
Ditches line each side of the two-lane road along which the queue has formed. On one side, a sloped, dirt verge provides enough space for people to sleep but leads down to a gutter where water flows every few days. When that happens, someone near the end of the line shouts to alert people to remove their belongings before the water soaks them, explained another Haitian asylum seeker in the queue, Laurest Frazi.
“We need buses. Look at the sun!” she said. “We have no bathrooms,” she also told Al Jazeera, holding up a five-litre water container that she said she uses to relieve herself when she cannot leave the line.
Very few of the Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico came directly from Haiti, which has suffered from years of political uncertainty and widespread poverty while struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in 2010.
Alberto Cabezas, a spokesman for the IOM, said the increase in Haitian arrivals in Mexico could be attributed to at least one of three causes: pandemic-related economic downturns in Chile and Brazil; rumours and misinformation around the ability to get into the US; and the extension of Temporary Protected Status to allow Haitians already in the US to remain without fear of deportation, which may have caused a mistaken belief that new arrivals could also apply.
Cruz Marquez said most people had been living in Brazil or Chile before travelling north. But being forced to wait for their asylum applications to be processed for months without work permits or the prospect of employment has made life in Tapachula extremely difficult.
A lack of employment was a common theme among people in the queue – both as a reason for having left Chile or Brazil and for wanting to get out of Tapachula. IOM said in a report (PDF) in June that about half of the migrant population in the Mexican city was unemployed.
“I just want a better life,” said Jon Peter, 27, who had also spent nine days in the queue when he spoke to Al Jazeera last week. “I tried to help my family. There is no work in my country and no work in Chile,” said Peter, who left Haiti in 2017 for Chile. He arrived in Mexico in September with his wife and their three children – aged 5, 4 and 8 months.
Another man in the queue, Haitian journalist Jean Noel Lamy, 41, said he had travelled to Mexico with three of his six children. “The most important thing is for us to move. We need work and we cannot stay here on the road,” he told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the INM programme to move people out of Tapachula has been chaotic so far.
Many people in the queue said buses appeared sporadically, with days passing during which none arrived. In comments to Al Jazeera, INM officials – all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity – said they were unable to confirm the timetable for the buses, the number of vehicles that would be sent, and where the buses were going.
But amid the confusion over the relocation programme, on Tuesday evening last week, a group of Mexican officials arrived at the queue with a convoy of about 25 buses and National Guard personnel, acting as crowd control, and ushered asylum seekers onto the buses.
Haitians asylum seekers quickly tossed backpacks and black plastic bags into the underbelly of a bus and jumped onboard, without knowing their destination. More buses arrived on Wednesday when Rosita finally reached the front of the line.
“I’m on a bus,” she told Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp message on Thursday. “I’m going to a place called Nayarit,” she said, referring to a small coastal state in western Mexico. “Thank God, we are OK.”
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