Mexico's change in government sparked hope among many Central Americans of a more accommodating migration policy. The result is a new influx of people transiting through the country, putting a strain on the authorities.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's progressive campaign platform during his successful run for the Mexican presidency last year seems to have raised hopes that migrants will be more welcome in the country than before. Those hopes were dashed after Lopez Obrador bowed to pressure from his US counterpart, Donald Trump. His government agreed to deal with Washington that expedites the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), under which US authorities can deport asylum-seekers apprehended without proper documentation to Mexico until their cases have been processed. DW spoke to Christopher Gascon, who heads the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mexico, about the strain Mexican authorities now face, and how he is helping migrants wishing to return home voluntarily.
DW: Last Tuesday, a bus carrying 69 Central American migrants left the border town of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, headed for the border with Guatemala. These people were part of the "Voluntary Return Program" organized by the IOM, with the support of the Mexican National Institute for Migration. What is the purpose of this program?
Christopher Gascon: We have been offering this program since last October to help people who want to return home. At the time, the so-called caravans of Central American migrants had begun to arrive in Mexico. At different stages of the long journey, some of the migrants decided to return home. The IOM offers to help. The same offer goes to people who came as far as the northern border with the US. Many of them entered the United States and were then returned to Mexico as part of the US MPP migrants program to wait for a summons to appear in court. It is very important to make it clear that these are not deportations. It is about the voluntary return of people who have been made aware of their situation and who have come to us to seek support.
The people who left Ciudad Juarez last Tuesday — their proceedings are closed?
No, these people were repatriated under the MPP program. The only reason they entered the United States was to seek work. All 69 people who returned last Tuesday told us they had never considered seeking asylum in the United States. They wanted to work there, get together with family members, but not to seek asylum. They never started asylum proceedings.
Considering how many Central Americans are stranded on the border with the US, the figure of 69 is relatively low. How many people will be receiving help to return to their home countries?
We do not know. This was the first organized return trip. Many of the migrants are scattered. Those who wish to return will turn to various partner organizations and are passed on. It took two days to organize this first transfer, and since then more people have expressed an interest in returning to their home country. As word of the program spreads, the number of people interested will certainly increase.
How would you describe the situation in Mexico in the face of the enormous pressure of Central American migration?
Mexico continues to be a very important migration corridor. The number of migrants fell in 2017 and began to rise again in 2018 and 2019. False information has played an important role. Many migrants thought it would now be easier to enter the US via Mexico — the opposite is the case. At the moment, migrants feel they have a better chance of having their requests for asylum recognized if they bring their children. This is not true, however, and many families expose themselves to an increased risk while traveling. Recklessly, people cross entire countries and then, when they reach the border, they are confronted with decisions they are not prepared for.
The situation is also an enormous financial burden for Mexico, while a wealthy country like the US rids itself of the problem.
It is a huge strain on Mexico, and coping requires a lot of resources and coordination. The Mexican government is trying to respond to this challenge that affects both the northern states and the southern border region, where opportunities are more limited. Mexico's new immigration policy is much more accommodating in supporting migrants, but they are much more numerous than expected.
What is the biggest challenge for Mexico in this scenario?
That would be the extraordinarily high number of migrants this year. It is premature to think about creating employment opportunities because the megaprojects in the south of the country, where people from Central America could find work, have not yet begun. Instead, Mexico faces a large number of migrants who want to cross the country to immigrate to the US. For Mexico, the magnitude is completely unexpected.