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Rejecting US immigration strategy, Mexico works with Guatemala to protect refugees

In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, migrants share an evening meal inside La 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco state, Mexico. More Central American migrants are asking for asylum in Mexico. (Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In a direct rejection of the U.S. government’s military-based approach to illegal migration, Mexico is now working with Guatemala to make their shared border safer and more humane for refugees fleeing violence in Central America.

The country receives an estimated 500,000 refugees every year, according to government statistics, most of which originate from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Experts say the exodus out of these countries — which make up the so-called “Northern Triangle” — is primarily driven by widespread violence, family reunification and poverty.

Many refugees head north on a perilous journey to Mexico or the U.S., where the majority fall victim to criminal organizations, violence or other abuses that can leave them injured and traumatized.

As a primary migratory transit route, Mexico is under mounting pressure to adopt a larger role in the regional refugee crisis. The country’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, this week met privately with Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales in Guatemala City, where they announced that they will support each other in ensuring more dignified cross-border migration.

“Let migration become … an option and not a necessity,” Peña Nieto said to reporters. He added that his administration has decriminalized undocumented migration and simplified its migratory processes, and that the pair had agreed “to banish the rhetoric of hatred and discrimination” against migrants.

For his part, Morales emphasized that he was ready to deal with irregular migration in a comprehensive way and asked the Mexican leader to facilitate the deportation of Guatemalan migrants’ to their homeland.

“Both countries recognize the determination, the necessity and the generation of inclusive and organized policies for returned migrants, as well as labor mobility programs,” Morales said to reporters.

“We are making a joint effort to take concrete actions that allow us to address the root causes of migration,” he added.

Mexico has been ramping up security along its nearly 600-mile border with Guatemala in recent years as part of a U.S.-backed strategy to deter undocumented migrants from traveling through the country and into the United States. 

Although these refugees have legal refugee protections in Mexico and by international law, human rights organizations say they have been systematically detained and deported throughout the refugee crisis. According to a recent report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), nearly 98 percent of refugees from the Northern Triangle were captured by immigration authorities in 2015, with devastating consequences on their physical and mental health.

At this week’s meeting, neither Morales or Peña Nieto made any direct comment about the anti-immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration, which has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal entries.

Migrants from Central America have become the biggest group seeking entry into the U.S. in recent years, and have been particularly targeted by U.S. immigration officials under both the Obama and Trump administrations. In 2016, U.S. authorities deported 35,465 Guatemalans — 13 percent more than the previous year.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at