The coronavirus pandemic has forced migrant shelters in Mexico to close or limit capacity, exacerbating an already precarious situation for migrants vulnerable to the predations of criminal groups.
More than 40 shelters that provide refuge to migrants traveling through Mexico en route to the United States have recently shuttered or scaled back operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a Reuters report.
In March 2020, for example, the Casa del Migrante shelter in Saltillo, the capital of northern Coahuila state, suspended accepting new migrants and asylum seekers. It reopened seven months later in October, but a COVID-19 outbreak forced the facility to close again in late December after its founder, Father Pedro Pantoja, died from the virus.
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The migrants -- mostly from Central America but also Asia, Africa and the Caribbean -- have long used the shelters while traversing Mexico. Many undertake the perilous journey to the US border with little more than a backpack, walking much of the way. The shelters -- which also provide migrants with food, clothing, medical attention and even legal aid -- are largely funded by non-governmental and religious organizations.
In recent years crackdowns on migrants have forced them onto irregular and treacherous routes, exposing them to lurking criminal gangs.
“We know the gangs are watching us, and they know we’re watching them,” one 27-year-old Honduran migrant told Reuters.
InSight Crime Analysis
The shelters offer a lifeline for migrants journeying through Mexico, who are in constant danger from criminals of all stripes.
Migrants staying at shelters tend to be unprotected, traveling alone and unable to pay for smugglers' services, said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Guides will pay criminal groups a fee to move through their territory, which is safer than going at it alone,” Leutert told InSight Crime.
With fewer shelters available to them, migrants are more vulnerable to robbery, extortion, assault and rape from local criminal actors. In addition, transnational criminal organizations run migrant kidnapping rings and demand ransom from family members in the United States. Mexican authorities and officials are also often complicit.
“They’re sitting ducks waiting to be victimized," Leutert said of migrants now "left to wait and sleep on the streets outside shelters in areas where organized crime groups are present."
Even with resource constraints, shelter workers continue to do all they can to provide for migrants despite the risks, which now not only include targeted violence but also exposure to coronavirus, as happened to Father Pantoja.
Without the shelters, migrants become less visible to those who want to help them, and more cut off from information.
“Shelters help share understanding on what’s happening to migrants when they travel and the risks they may face on the journey, but with facilities closing or limiting their services in the face of fewer resources and COVID, you lose that close interaction and a big source of information,” Maureen Meyer, the Vice President for Programs at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and an expert on Mexico, told InSight Crime.
Migrants, however, also communicate among themselves using informal channels that continue to exist outside of migrant shelters to share details on areas to avoid and preferred smuggling services, among other things, according to Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has written extensively about migration and the US-Mexico border.
“It might be harder to get official information on the government’s shifting migration policies or the rights of migrants to seek asylum, but there are so many different ways information is shared, whether that be on social media, WhatsApp or people they meet and talk to on their journey,” said Slack.
With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in Mexico, shelter services for migrants will likely remain in limbo. But this doesn't appear to be deterring those fleeing the devastation and economic damage wrought most recently by back-to-back hurricanes and the pandemic in Central America. The United States' political transition has created fresh hopes for many to start a new life far from the violence, socio-economic hardship and other factors that had made life unbearable at home.
Indeed, on January 5, migration authorities in Guatemala announced plans to restrict a new caravan already planning to leave Honduras for the United States.