Nearly half a million migrants have been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in 2016, while hundreds of thousand of others have been detained and deported en route through Mexico. Within this number is a record-breaking number of Central Americans seeking asylum in what Amnesty International called “the world’s least visible refugee crises.” Many of these asylum seekers have escaped communities torn apart by violence, the drug trade and poverty, but human rights groups report that an alarming number of them are subject to serious danger en route to the border.
According to a report released Friday by Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, nine out of 10 Central American asylum seekers seen in shelters across Mexico demonstrate serious mental health issues triggered by traumatic events. MSF says that two-thirds of patients reported suffering one or more violent attacks — including rape and kidnapping — during their journey towards the U.S. border. Families are often separated, and thousands have lost their lives in the crossing. Even those who overcome these odds will likely bear the effects of their trauma for years to come, say experts. Psychologist Dora Morales of MSF says the constant exposure to violence and uncertainty endured by these migrants “can lead to serious long-term mental health problems.”
And the journey has only grown more traumatic in recent years. Since 2014, Mexican authorities have cracked down on familiar channels for migrants, such as the “la Bestia” train in an aggressive security initiative called Plan Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Plan. The surge in detentions and deportations is linked to pressure from the United States, after Obama vowed in 2014 to address the escalating crisis of unaccompanied minors amassing at the border. Since then — and with millions in U.S. aid — hundreds of Mexican patrol officers have been redirected to target known migration routes, while checkpoints and roadblocks multiplied.
The backdrop to this collective trauma has deep political roots. Many of these asylum seekers fled homelands ravaged by drug cartels and gang violence — conditions caused at least in part by American intervention. Yet the policies pursued by U.S. and Mexican forces have thus far focused on punitive measures towards those apprehended at the border.
While security crackdowns do little to address the humanitarian conditions driving mass migration, Central American organizers are working to curb violence in their countries. This weekend, 40,000 Hondurans took to the streets to protest rising violence and the persecution of human rights activists in the country. In the streets of Tegucigulpa and dozens of other cities, demonstrators formed “human chains” to highlight unity amidst the upheaval. Even so, according to Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty, Central America remains a “conflict zone,” where “the violence is becoming unbearable.”
Without systemic, human rights-oriented solutions, it is likely that the cycle of trauma will continue. MSF’s head of mission in Mexico, Bertrand Rossier, told the Guardian that the Mexican crackdown has left migrants more vulnerable, and farther from help. “Since the Southern Border Plan, it’s much harder for us to reach people, but the level of violence is even higher than before. We’re concerned about the humanitarian impact of the plan.”
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