Amnesty International directors from around the world visited Matamoros, Mexico this weekend.
The international human rights organization called the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico Policy, formerly known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, a “disgrace.” The policy requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court.
An encampment next to the Gateway International Bridge that connects Matamoros to Brownsville was the delegation's first stop. They found the conditions there disturbing.
Matamoros Mayor Mario Lopez estimated there are more than 1,500 asylum seekers here. Some migrants live in a sea of tents, while others sleep under bushes or on the streets.
Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International U.K. and said the living situations were brutal.
“This is a temporary camp, so nobody is putting infrastructure,” said Allen. “There’s no running water, there’s no proper sanitation. There’s no way to wash your hands after you’ve used the washrooms, which are absolutely indescribable.”
Allen and the delegation met with an asylum seeker who said her partner was allowed into the U.S., but she wasn’t.
The woman is a lesbian and according to immigrant rights activists is supposed to be exempt under the Remain in Mexico policy because vulnerable populations are excluded from the program on a case-to-case basis. The woman will have to wait here until her court date in June of next year. She told the Amnesty leaders she worries about her safety.
“This is absolutely deliberate,” said Allen. “The aim is to say to her, ‘Go home. Do not hang around here until June and if you do hang around here until June, then we’ll still be treating you badly.’”
The group met with dozens of asylum seekers throughout the day who said they also felt unsafe while waiting in Matamoros.
Esther is from Honduras and runs pop-up showers that were recently set-up by U.S. volunteers. She said she’s been in Mexico for three months and that it hasn’t been easy.
She explained there is a sense of insecurity and she doesn’t sleep well because she wakes up with any little noise she hears at night.
Iruũgũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s executive director, who was also part of the delegation in Matamoros.
“I’ve been in one of the world’s biggest camps and that’s the Dadaab camp, which is at the northern border of Kenya with Somalia and every time I’m in that space my blood boils,” said Houghton. “It really just gets to me, the level of injustice and it feels like that today.”
He said there are some similarities with what’s happening in Matamoros.
“Governments tend to start off with a sense of denial,” said Houghton. “They allow these tented cities to grow and communities really suffer from the lack of safe water and sanitation and civic organizations step into that space.”
Houghton said one thing that has really struck during the visit is how the U.S. government has created this problem for Mexico.
“They will have to essentially deal with this mass of humanity that is not actually looking for an American dream, they’re really escaping a Central American nightmare,” said Houghton.
Gabriel Sakellaridis is the executive director of Amnesty International Greece. He said he also visited Tijuana, another area along the U.S.-Mexico border dealing with MPP.
“In Tijuana we didn’t see camps, we saw a lot of shelters with very little resources mostly run by organizations,” said Sakellaridis. “Not from the government.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the federal Mexican agency that deals with immigration did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Margaret Huang is executive director of Amnesty International USA. She said she’s been to other parts of the world where there are large refugee camps and that in most of those cases, large international governmental and nonprofit organizations provide food, water, medical care and education.
“Nothing like that exists here in Matamoros. The next obvious group to do it is governments. Here the Mexican and US governments have both rejected their responsibilities,” said Huang. “The only saving grace has been the incredible efforts of the communities in Matamoros and Brownsville, who spend their evenings and their weekends and their days trying to help people because they care.”
The Amnesty delegation met with a number of people trying to help, including attorneys providing pro bono work, a woman who recently opened a resource center for asylum seekers and a group of people who are providing clean water for migrants in the encampment.
Huang said those efforts are a rare bright spot, and the next step after their visit is to get members of Congress to come see for themselves how Remain in Mexico is playing out.
“I feel that there are constituencies in Congress that would care very much about the people that are being sent back here,” said Huang. “The people who should be excluded from Remain in Mexico and are being returned.”
Huang said they also plan on reaching out to other entities who can further help the asylum seekers while they continue to wait in Mexico.