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Deadly fire in Mexico migrant centre - overdue immigration reform?


Katiuska Marquez (23) was among the many waiting outside the National Institute of Migration (INM), in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, awaiting news on their loved one’s whereabouts. Her brother, Orlando Maldonado (30), was amongst those who were unaccounted for after a fire broke out at a Mexican detention centre. The siblings had been detained just hours before the fire took place, for begging in the streets, but Marquez was released because she was caring for a toddler. Both had fled Venezuela, which is currently undergoing a severe humanitarian crisis.

As she waited outside the centre, Marquez had no idea if she would see her brother again. With over 40 people dead and 28 injured, it was likely Maldonado (who was inside the building when the fire occurred) had been one of the many victims.

The deadly fire broke out on Monday 27th March, at around 10pm, after protesting migrants set fire to mattresses. The protests were sparked by the decision to deport the migrants back to the countries they had recently fled, going against their search for asylum in a safer place. Human rights groups have blamed the poor conditions in the detention centre for the deaths, especially overcrowding, and have cited the fire as an example of why Mexico’s immigration policy desperately needs reforming.

“Mexico’s immigration policy kills”

Ciudad Juárez, sitting near the border of the United States and Mexico, has been the site of the INM since 1993. Over the last three decades, countless accusations of inhumane conditions, abuse, and death threats have been thrown at the detention centre. A 2017 report found migrants were systematically kept in ‘punishment cells’ or solitary confinement, as well as several examples of sexual abuse towards women. INM disputed most of the report’s serious findings and claimed to treat migrants’ human rights with “absolute respect”.

Amnesty International said the standards in Mexico do not meet dignified detention conditions, with the biggest problems being crowding and a lack of sufficient food or water. Indeed, a federal Mexican official claimed 68 people had been confined to a cell intended for a maximum of 50 and deprived of drinking water on the day of the fire. However, due to the recent militarisation of immigration policies, the number of people detained there has only increased: the majority come from Guatemala and Honduras, although there are significant numbers of El Salvadorians, Venezuelans, and Colombians. The push for stricter detention of migrants has come from the United States of America and Canada, to reduce the number of asylum seekers in their own countries. This harsh crackdown on ‘immigration’ has resulted in lives being lost, such as Orlando Maldonado and others like him.

Footage of the fire has shown a lack of care from staff at the centre, showing people in uniforms neglecting to help those trying to escape the blaze. Although the INM has repeatedly disputed claims of abuse, President Lopez Obrador has now pledged there will be “no impunity” for those responsible in the upcoming investigation.

“We’re all responsible because we haven’t done the right thing.”

José Guadalupe Torres Campos, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ciudad Juárez, has called for a reformation of immigration policies. He insisted Mexico needs to change, a sentiment the Pope has reinforced, saying everyone could be doing more to ease the crisis. Support for migrants needs to be improved, both by the government and people living in Ciudad Juárez. Torres Campos said the responsibility for the current migrant crisis is shared “by omission, indifference, action, or because we haven’t done the right thing”.

Cities along the border with the United States have higher numbers of displaced and vulnerable people than anywhere else in the country. The overwhelming of the system means people have been forced to sleep in overcrowded shelters, churches, or on the streets.

Stricter migration policies put in place by President Joe Biden have limited the number of people who are allowed to seek asylum in the US. This has pushed migrants back into Mexico and resulted in a record number of asylum claims, despite the country’s infrastructure being already strained. Rafael Velasquez, country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said Mexico doesn’t have the resources to cope with the sudden surge in the number of migrants.

Although Biden’s predecessor was vocal about reducing US immigration numbers, the situation in Mexico raises questions about whether the approach of the incumbent has had more severe consequences.

The scale of the current immigration crisis is unprecedented, with a record-breaking 82 million people currently displaced from their homes. Like Orlando Maldonado, these people are escaping challenging circumstances beyond their control, such as extreme poverty, persecution, and conflict.

This fire was likely a one-off, extreme example of how poor conditions in detention centres brings challenges to migrants who were already vulnerable. However, the harsh reality is there are now many friends and families, like Maldonado’s, who remain uncertain if they will ever see their loved ones again.

Image: Flickr/ Mexico: Guterres requires ‘thorough investigation’ into lethal migrant centre hearth



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