MEXICO CITY/NEW YORK – The United States government must suspend all deportations to Latin America and the Caribbean, a process that is moving people from the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States to lower transmission countries and which will exacerbate a public health crisis in the region, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said.
“Despite the risk of contagion and the implications for people’s health, the US has continued to organise flights to deport migrants and asylum seekers to their countries of origin, most with fragile health systems,” said Marc Bosch, coordinator of MSF in Latin America.
Mexico is also carrying out deportations and voluntary repatriations for migrants who want to return to their home countries. In total, the US and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April.
Since late March, the Trump Administration has closed the US border to asylum seekers, creating an additional risk for people fleeing violence who, if deported, will face both the risk of COVID-19 and threats to their own lives.
Shelters in Mexico forced to close leaving people in danger
MSF teams are already witnessing the health impact of continued deportations at the height of the pandemic. One of the shelters in which MSF works in Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas, Mexico), had to close its doors to new admissions after 15 people contracted COVID-19 after contact with someone who had the virus and had recently been deported from the United States.
“The situation in Nuevo Laredo shows how continued deportations from the US — despite the fact that the country has the highest numbers of affected people in the world — can put countless other people at risk,” said Sergio Martín, general coordinator of MSF in Mexico. “It also highlights how shelters need sufficient resources in order to adapt their facilities to minimise transmission.”
The closure of migrant shelters, which has occurred throughout Mexico since the start of this outbreak, has left migrants and asylum seekers with limited ways to control their exposure to the virus and limited access to the basic services they need.
Pandemic being spread to fragile health systems
The public health implications of continued deportations from the United States, is not limited to Mexico. The Guatemalan president recently ended deportation flights to the country, after deportees arrived ill. In Haiti, recent deportees from the United States have also tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Most of the countries to which the deportees are sent have fragile health systems. Any measure that contributes to regionally spreading the disease or putting people at risk must be stopped immediately,” said Martin. “Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti have very limited capacity for testing, surveillance, treatment and a limited supply of medical equipment such as ventilators. A major outbreak of COVID-19 could be catastrophic.”
People awaiting deportation by the United States are often held in detention centres for weeks or even months. These and other prison facilities in the United States have become ideal breeding grounds for the massive spread of the disease. MSF has called on US authorities to release people from immigration detention in order to mitigate transmission.
Mexico must also end deportations to other Latin American countries
In Mexico, MSF has called on the government to close its migrant detention centres following a riot in late March, in which a Guatemalan citizen died. The detainees were protesting crowded conditions in the centre and a lack of information and action on COVID-19 prevention from Mexican authorities.
Mexico must also ensure that the process of voluntary repatriation of migrants (to El Salvador, Honduras or other countries) is carried out with the necessary guarantees to prevent the spread of the disease.
Currently, these countries do not have quarantine mechanisms that guarantee the safe isolation of people arriving from abroad and their full access to diagnostic and treatment methods.
“In El Salvador, upon arrival, deportees are sent to separate quarantine centres for deportees, whose conditions differ greatly from those of the rest of the population entering the country,” says Stéphane Foulon, coordinator of MSF in El Salvador. “Although health care is assured, sanitary and isolation measures cannot always be fulfilled because the flow of deportees arrivals from the United States is constant.”
MSF is adapting our activities in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti, as well as in the United States, to collaborate in the fight against COVID19, in addition to the rest of the countries of the continent where we are present.