US president-elect Joe Biden has been urged to scrap a “devastating” migration program that activists say has exposed tens of thousands of asylum seekers — many of them children — to violence, abduction and rape in some of the world’s most dangerous cities.
US President Donald Trump’s administration created the “Remain in Mexico” program in January 2019 in an effort to deter asylum seekers trying to enter the US through its southern border.
The initiative — officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — stipulated that asylum seekers would have to await their court hearings in Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juarez, Mexicali and Matamoros, and not in the US as before.
However, activists say that exposed highly vulnerable migrants, mostly from Central and South America, to physical harm and illness in unfamiliar and dangerous surroundings with some of the highest murder rates on Earth.
In a report published yesterday, Human Rights Watch described how Trump’s policy “needlessly and foreseeably exposed [asylum seekers] to considerable risk of serious harm.”
The group said that those interviewed for its report, including children, “described rape or attempted rape and other sexual assault, abduction for ransom, extortion, armed robbery, and other crimes committed against them.”
“In some cases, Mexican immigration officers or police committed these crimes,” the group said.
Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel to the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, said that its researchers had heard “really devastating” testimony from asylum seekers about their plight back in Mexico.
He said that the interviews had left him impressed with the resilience of those affected, but “completely devastated about what the US government was doing to people.”
“The really shocking thing given the consistent reports of really, really serious risk to people who are placed in the MPP — or returned to Mexico after attending hearings in the US — is that US authorities have continued to place people in the MPP, including through the [COVID-19] pandemic, and have consistently refused to pull people out of the [program] when they present proof of these harms,” Bochenek said.
“I can’t help drawing parallels to other contexts that I’ve seen,” he said, citing Australia’s longer-lasting offshore detention scheme.
“There’s a similarity there. The offloading of people who are only traveling to a country to seek safety — and not only offloading them, but deliberately, or at least knowingly subjecting them to harm,” he said.
Trump defended policies such as Remain in Mexico — which has sent more than 69,000 people back over the border, sometimes into ramshackle refugee camps — as a way to protect US citizens from “thugs” and “bad hombres.”
Biden has pledged to scrap the program but, apparently wary of triggering a sudden surge of border arrivals, members of his transition team have sought to lower expectations that they will do so immediately.
In an interview with the Spanish language news agency Efe, Biden’s Domestic Policy Council nominee, Susan Rice, said: “Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on day one. It will not.”
Biden’s national security adviser nominee, Jake Sullivan, told Efe that Remain in Mexico had “been a disaster from the start, and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico, but putting the new policy into practice will take time.”
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