Sunday, October 24

Andrés Ramírez, head of the Mexican Commission for Refugees, before the arrival of thousands of Haitians: “The situation has overwhelmed us”

Andrés Ramírez has spent a lifetime dedicated to mitigating the complicated situation experienced by people who are forced to leave their country. With almost three decades of experience representing the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), he has seen up close the main problems that hit asylum seekers in Latin America. After knowing first-hand the realities of migrants in countries such as Venezuela or Brazil, with the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he assumed the leadership of the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees.

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Ramírez lives hectic days. “We are facing a situation that has overwhelmed us. It is a very complicated scenario that exceeds our operational capacity,” he describes with concern to, before leaving for the city of Tapachula, in southern Mexico, the gateway to the caravans of migrants arriving from Central America.

This week, the United States Government decided to deport some 15,000 people, most of them of Haitian origin, after the attempt to enter the country illegally. The decision has caused the resignation of the special envoy of Joe Biden’s Government in Haiti, Daniel Foote, who presented his resignation in protest of the “inhumane treatment of migrants.”

Haitian migrants, like all those who join the Central American caravans, spend weeks traveling through different countries on foot until they reach the border with the United States. Although Mexico is nothing more than a place of transit, it is this country that ends up assuming part of the impact.

In the last half year, Haitian migrants went from ranking fifth in refugee claims to second in Mexico. The number of refugee applications by Haitians in that country already exceeds 18,000, according to the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees.

The arrival of thousands of Haitians to the United States from Mexico, is it a phenomenon that began last year?

No, this phenomenon began in 2019. Two years ago, thousands of Haitians began arriving in Mexico to go to the United States. These people are the ones who left after the 2010 earthquake, settled mainly in Brazil and are now trying to enter the United States via Mexico.

So, don’t you associate it with the recent events that Haiti has experienced such as the political crisis that unleashed the assassination of Jovenel moise or the earthquake last August?

No, because they do not leave Haiti. Most of the Haitians who entered Mexico en route to the United States come from Brazil and Chile. They are not people who have left Haiti directly. This does not mean that they cannot come in the future but it is not what is happening at the moment.

So if they don’t leave Haiti, could they be returned to the country where they had residence instead of their home country?

That topic is very important. They should not be returned to Haiti because it is an absolutely devastated country. The Mexican Foreign Ministry is wanting to have conversations with the Brazilian and Chilean governments to see that possibility. I don’t know what the outcome of these conversations will be.

Why, at that moment, did you decide to go from Haiti to Brazil?

Those were times when Minustah, the United Nations Mission for Stabilization in Haiti, was a UN peacekeeping mission that operated from 2004 to 2017, led mainly by Brazil. At that time, Brazil was in a boom time with Lula in power and there was significant economic growth. All of this led many Haitians to see Brazil as the “Brazilian dream.” But all this changed.

Why are they trying to enter the United States now?

There was a siren song about the temporary protection mechanism in the United States for Haitian migrants. Human traffickers have seduced many of them by saying they could safely enter the United States. What they were not told is that this mechanism is for those who are already living in the United States and not for those who come from abroad.

How does this phenomenon affect Mexico?

In Mexico, Haitians went from being the fifth country in number of asylum seekers, with just over 5,000 people, to 19,000 this year. Already in 2020, despite the pandemic, Haitians were the only ones who increased the number of asylum applications at a time when all requests from other nationalities were falling. This year, they have more than tripled. At the end of August, we have about 19,000 Haitian applicants. If we project towards the end of the year, a multiplication by five is possible compared to last year.

If we talk about economic migration, it is not possible for them to enter as refugees

No. And that’s the problem. They are not refugees for us. The reasons for which they enter do not fit within the definition of refugees established in international legal regulations or in Mexican law itself. And on the other hand, they should not be returned to Haiti due to the situation in the country. So there should be some immigration alternative for these people that allows them to stay in the country but without being in refugee status. Not having that option, they consider that the only recourse is to present the refugee request. That is why the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid is now under very strong pressure.

Can you respond to so many requests?

We are facing a situation that has overwhelmed us. It is a very complicated scenario that exceeds our operational capacity. This leads to crowding of people, long waits, for their requests for refuge to be finally rejected. Because, after all, they are not refugees nor do they want to be, what they want is to go to the United States and they want that document to move in that direction.

And Mexico is a country that has a long tradition in responding to the different waves of migration …

Yes, the first wave was during the Spanish Civil War, when Mexico accepted the Spanish refugees. That marked a starting point in our country’s asylum tradition. Then in the 70s came dictatorships in the Southern Cone. The third wave was in the 1980s, we had Guatemalan refugees due to the policy of the Shattered Land. And now, starting in 2013, is when we see an increase in migration from Central America that are victims of generalized violence, poverty and the violation of human rights.

Are there Haitians who, once they have been refused entry to the United States, seek to stay in Mexico?

There is a variety of migrants. Migration flows are complex. Some are deported by the United States, others manage to enter illegally and there is another sector that, seeing that the situation is complicated, choose to return to Mexico. Among the latter, there are a variety of options: some are looking to buy time to try again and others who decide to stay in Mexico. That happened in Tijuana in 2016, when an important group of Haitian migrants arrived to go to the United States but ended up staying there because there is a possibility of employment. Haitians are much more affordable to be able to work in whatever.

How is the journey through Mexico to reach the United States?

The main point of entry is through the city of Tapachula, in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. There was contention on the part of the National Migration Institute to prevent them from leaving for the north, but it is evident that this containment did not work. The Haitians were still tenacious in wanting to continue the route north. And, in the end, they managed to circumvent the barrier to the United States.

Are migrant caravans still the most effective way to enter the United States?

Caravans emerge as a protection mechanism for migrants. Small groups were harassed by human traffickers. There are reports of raped women, really dramatic situations. Passing in small groups is putting you at high risk. The caravan is a way to give it much more weight and strength for those who travel the country to the United States. But that mechanism began to fail because they were stopped with much force and violence than the small groups. They are no longer a successful formula, their time has passed. That is why they have now returned to form small groups, less visible and with the risks of before, to make it through. It was an experiment with the caravans but, with the passage of time, it has been shown that they are not very successful.

Are we in a moment of setback in the rights of migrants?

I do not know if we can speak of retrogression but the number of refugees and internally displaced persons has been growing, year after year, in a remarkable way. That is why durable solutions are very difficult to achieve. I am referring to repatriation, resettlement fees are lower, local integration is also difficult. The challenges are ever greater because the number of migrants is increasing and that makes it difficult to arrive at lasting responses. That is why it gives the impression of going backwards, but I don’t know if it is a setback or if the challenges facing governments are increasing.