TAPACHULA, Mexico – The carefully assembled line of padded backpacks stretch for over a mile along a busy two-lane highway outside of Tapachula in southern Mexico. It is the business of hundreds of migrants, mostly from Haiti, who try to save their place in the queue to board buses that will take them to cities further north of Mexico.
It’s a line that Mexican officials told them to form. But buses are rare. And for the hundreds of migrants camped along the road and in a public park across town, the wait is excruciating.
“I’ve been here for five months now and have had nothing but the run,” says Djeff Orelien, 24, who arrived in Tapachula, just across the border between Mexico and the United States. Guatemala, with his wife and one-year-old son. July.
Mexican authorities have told migrants like Orelien that they cannot leave this southernmost city in Mexico without the proper travel documents or a so-called humanitarian visa allowing them to cross the country freely. Others have been asked to apply for refugee status or asylum, but must also do so in Tapachula.
Mexico’s interior ministry estimates that by the end of the year nearly 130,000 migrants will have requested some type of protection. Almost half of these requests come from Haitians.
Many migrants have been on the move for years
Orelien is part of an exodus of Haitians flocking from South America. Most fled their Caribbean countries in the mid-2010s, finding many jobs in Brazil and Chile. But as the COVID pandemic devastated these economies, Haitians have moved north, most hoping to reach the United States. By some estimates, more than 60,000 Haitians have left South America in recent months.
Under one of the few trees providing shade near the line of roadside migrants, Tinac Lena, 35, charges his cell phone with an extension cord that a neighboring owner has made available to Haitian migrants.
“We’ve been waiting here on the road for over a week,” he says, shouting in broken Spanish he learned during his six years in South America. “We have no water, no work, nothing … why are they treating us like that?” he adds, as dozens of other migrants nod in agreement.
The arrival of Haitians, along with thousands of other migrants from Venezuela, Cuba and countries in Africa, has overwhelmed Mexican authorities. Mexico’s refugee assistance program has fewer than 50 asylum officers. The slowness of bureaucracy, as well as the lack of clear information, is frustrating for migrants who cannot work or leave the city without proper papers.
“We have never seen such a situation here, a situation so dramatic, so terrible and so badly managed by the INM (National Institute of Migration, Mexican immigration agency)”, says Enrique Vidal, a migrant activist of the Fray Matías de Córdoba Center for Human Rights in Tapachula. “This is a humanitarian emergency.
Vidal says the migrants told his group authorities were charging up to $ 400 to get a seat on a bus. An INM official did not respond to a question about the accusation.
The wait for the buses is long and cruel
For more than two weeks, thousands of Haitians have also lined up along a high green fence in a park on the edge of Tapachula. This is where immigration officers distribute pieces of paper with a large QR code, which allows migrants to board buses heading north out of town.
There are only eight overflowing portable toilets in the park. The scorching sun accentuates the foul smell. Most migrants sleep on the sidewalk, unwilling to venture far from their place in the queue. A phalanx of Mexican National Guard troops with large plastic riot shields patrol the long line of migrants.
Every day before noon, after only a few hours of work, an immigration official lines up with a megaphone announcing the end of the day’s “activities”. Some days no QR code is distributed.
“They treat us like animals,” says Barecena Jean, also from Haiti. She says she’s been sleeping at the park for over a week in hopes of finding a seat on a bus.
Migrant rights activists say such treatment is a targeted strategy. “It is part of the policy of the immigration authorities to dehumanize and humiliate migrants,” said Yamel Athie, activist and local psychologist. “They just hope the Haitians give up.
The MNI did not respond to a request for comment. An official, who said he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the number of migrants reaching Mexico is at record levels and dealing with Haitians is a struggle due to language barriers. Haitians speak either French or Creole.
Some say Mexico’s treatment of migrants meets US wishes
Mexico has long been pressured to do more to prevent migrants from reaching the US border, said Maureen Meyer, from the Washington Office for Latin America.
“This is (…) a message from the Biden administration that what they want from countries further south is to do everything possible to prevent migrants from reaching the US-Mexico border.” , Meyer said.
In September, 15,000 Haitians left Mexico for Del Rio, a city on the border of Texas. While up to 5,000 were deported to Haiti, the rest were allowed to enter the United States to make asylum claims.
While some migrants say they want to stay in Mexico and work, many Haitians interviewed in southern Mexico ultimately want to enter the United States.
Djeeff Orelien says Miami is his destination. “The United States is the best place for us Haitians to live and work,” he says. He wants to follow Mexican law so he can travel safely, but he says the authorities are making it so difficult. “I don’t want to do anything wrong, I just want to get a permit so I can get out of here,” he adds.
The flow of migrants entering Mexico shows no limits
One night this week, 15 buses pulled up along the busy two-lane highway without any prior announcement. Hundreds of Haitians rushed to board the buses. National Guard troops attempted to keep the peace. Orelien did not get a coveted seat.
“Life is really difficult, I don’t want to die here, I just need to keep moving,” he said, thinking of the long wait for the next group of buses.
Local gang prevention officer Alberto Rodriguez, who helps control migrant crowds, says the situation is frustrating all around. The flow of migrants arriving in the city seems endless.
“Maybe 800 will leave one day, but another 1,000 will show up right behind them,” Rodriguez said, shaking his head in exasperation.