Despite pandemic restrictions, people fleeing violence and persecution continue to seek asylum in Mexico

While a number of countries throughout Latin America and the rest of the world have closed their borders and restricted movement to contain the spread of coronavirus, Mexico has continued to register new asylum claims from people fleeing brutal violence and persecution, helping them find safety.

By designating the registration of new asylum claims an essential activity, Mexico has ensured that people receive protection from being forced to return to their countries of origin, where their lives may be in danger, as their cases are processed.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says these practices show that long-standing principles of international refugee law can be upheld even as governments take measures to protect public health.

Even though border restrictions in Central America have meant a 90 per cent drop in average weekly asylum claims in Mexico in April, hundreds of people continue to apply for refugee status in the country. This highlights the level of violence and persecution that many people continue to face in their countries of origin, even during the pandemic.

In the first three months of the year, asylum applications in Mexico were up by 33 per cent, compared to the same period last year. The nearly 17,800 new asylum claims in 2020 were principally from nationals of Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador and Venezuela.

Although Mexican authorities have suspended the legally mandated processing times for asylum claims due to the pandemic, UNHCR is helping Mexico’s refugee office, COMAR (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados), to move to remote registration and processing of asylum claims. This will aim to respect physical distancing guidelines throughout the process and will also prevent a further increase in processing backlogs which have developed in recent years.

UNHCR has also supported the Mexican authorities to release asylum-seekers from migration detention centres. Release from detention has become even more critical given the danger that COVID-19 poses for detainees.

The recent announcement by Mexican immigration authorities to release all detained migrants and asylum-seekers is therefore a welcome step. The measure is consistent with the recommendations of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Since March 16, UNHCR has supported the release of 434 asylum-seekers from immigration detention.

Those released are generally housed in shelters run by civil society organizations or the Catholic Church, or they move into rental accommodation with UNHCR assistance. UNHCR has supported 93 shelters to implement preventive measures to prevent spread of the coronavirus, trying to ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers remain safe and healthy.

Shelters are on the front line of the humanitarian response during the COVID-19 pandemic, and UNHCR has facilitated webinars with WHO experts so that shelters can take appropriate sanitary measures.

In coordination with other international organizations, UNHCR has distributed antibacterial gel and cleaning products to shelters and is installing temporary sinks to facilitate handwashing.

Many shelters have also established isolation areas for those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections. These spaces have been equipped with thermometers, cleaning materials, personal care items and emergency mobile phones.

However, another 65 shelters in the country have stopped receiving new arrivals. To address this, UNHCR has increased humanitarian assistance to asylum-seekers so that they can pay for other forms of accommodation. This will help reduce the demand for shelter space and help ensure that asylum-seekers can maintain physical distancing.

Since the beginning of March, 3,330 asylum-seekers who have recently arrived in Mexico have received humanitarian assistance, allowing them to find rental accommodation.