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Border & Immigration

Migrants, Volunteers Prepare For Possible COVID-19 Outbreak At Mexican Border Camp

Honduran asylum seeker Malek Gaitan, 8, studies words in English at the migrant camp where he lives in Matamoros.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Honduran asylum seeker Malek Gaitan, 8, studies words in English at the migrant camp where he lives in Matamoros.

Dr. Dairon Elisondo Rojas is walking around a new 20-bed tented hospital at the south end of a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

“This is going to be the hospital for the COVID-19 patients,” he said as he led a tour of the facility.

There’s medical equipment all around, a tarp-like floor, COVID antibody tests and cardiac monitors. The hospital opened about two weeks ago on April 30.

Dairon is a doctor at the camp and a volunteer with Global Response Management (GRM), a nonprofit that provides medical services at the camp and is running the hospital. He’s also an asylum seeker from Cuba. He and GRM are the camp’s front-line medical responders.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t scary, knowing we’re about to embark on something that has killed a lot of doctors and nurses in other areas,” he said. “But it’s our job. It’s the job that we chose and if we don’t help them, who else will?”

The Global Response Management field hospital set up in Matamoros response to COVID-19.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
The Global Response Management field hospital was recently set up in response to COVID-19.

Thousands of asylum seekers continue to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, which requires them to remain there for months as their asylum cases unfold in U.S. immigration court.

Medical experts and volunteers at the camp worry that COVID-19 could spread like wildfire among the more than 1,500 men, women and children living there if the virus makes its way into the camp.

The field hospital is just one of the latest precautions to arrive at the camp to protect migrants against the virus.

“Currently we have not had any patients that we have admitted,” said Helen Perry the executive director of GRM. “We have two patients that we went ahead and isolated due to their symptoms and they were tested by the government, so we’re keeping them in isolation until those tests come back, just out of an abundance of caution.” 

Perry said the majority of COVID-19 cases in Matamoros originated near the camp and the fact that they haven’t had any positive cases at the camp is a testament to their safety measures. 

GRM has five full-time staff members and several volunteers, but would like to provide more services.

“We’ve worked in seven countries: Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Bangladesh, the Bahamas and now Mexico,” said Perry. “It’s not that we don’t have the capabilities, it’s not that we don’t have the volunteers, it’s simply funding.”

In her experience, countries from where refugees are fleeing from, and fleeing to, often provide some sort of financial support. Perry said that’s not happening here. An outbreak can come at any moment — something she said happens at other refugee camps.

“With things like Typhoid, or Cholera, there are vaccines for those diseases and so your response is often very different because at the first signs of there being an outbreak you are aggressively addressing the need for vaccination,” said Perry. “COVID doesn’t have a vaccination.”

Another precaution that’s taking place at the camp is that there’s now a strong presence of the Mexican National Guard and Federal Mexican police.

“One of the goals is to prevent just random locals from coming into the camp, so they can provide just a little bit more security,” Perry said about the Mexican law enforcement groups at the camp.

The Mexican government also put up a fence that circles part of the camp.

A fence is seen at the migrant camp in Matamoros.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
A recently installed fence is seen at the migrant camp in Matamoros.

“You know, fences are a pro and a con. They keep people out, they also keep people in,” said Perry. “It is an intimidating site when this big 12 foot fence goes up with concertina wire. I think that's something we're continuing to monitor."

Perry said she was told by Mexican officials that there will be no restriction of movement for the migrants.

Near the new fence, there’s a small room where three women are helping to protect the camp from the virus.

The small room is filled with sounds of sewing machines and scissors cutting through fabric.

“We are here at the office of Glady and we’re making face masks for us, the migrants,” said Carmen, an asylum seeker from Honduras.

Carmen sits at the sewing machine cranking out face masks for other migrants at the camp.

“I like to help when I can,” she said.

Carmen said she would sew back home, but she had never made face masks before. 

They’ve made about 100 masks this week.

Honduran asylum seekers Merari Gonzalez, left, and Carmen Corrales make face masks for asylum seekers at the migrant camp in Matamoros.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Honduran asylum seekers Merari Gonzalez, left, and Carmen Corrales make face masks for asylum seekers at the migrant camp in Matamoros.

Some of the nonprofits that work in the area like the Angry Tias and Abuelas, the Resource Center of Matamoros and the Sidewalk School have come together to purchase cloth, sewing machines and other essentials to kickstart the sewing program. They’re also providing wages for the workers. Team Brownsville also helps fund many projects at the camp.

“This was an idea of Angry Tias and Abuelas, since we didn’t have face masks to give them,” said Glady Cañas Aguilar from the organization Ayudandoles A Triunfar, where the women are sewing from. “They came up with the idea of buying the sewing machines and hired people from the camp to make them.”

Another group of seamstresses also make face masks down the street at the Resource Center in Matamoros.

Cañas Aguilar said the pandemic has already impacted some of the migrants the nonprofits in the area were working with.

“They were used to seeing us (volunteers) everyday,” said Cañas Aguilar. “They say they feel lonely, orphaned and outcast when they are not with all the nonprofits that were helping them.”

Another thing that Cañas Aguilar’s organization does is help find jobs for some of the asylum seekers, but she said since the pandemic began several migrants have lost their job and that she’s trying to help.

Back at the tent hospital Dairon talks amongst his colleagues and they practice some medical techniques.

“I think we’re in a moment where everyone needs to help one another,” he said.

Asylum seekers and volunteers said they will continue to do everything they can to stop the virus from entering the camp, as COVID-19 is expected to hit its peak in Mexico this summer.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos.

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