Mexico Migrant Detention Center Fire: The Need For Protection Of Migrants

On March 27th, 2023, a fire broke out in a federally operated migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and left at least 40 dead and 29 hospitalized. An investigation has been opened, which includes six people of interest regarding the incident, including two federal agents, a state migration officer, and members of a private security firm, according to Al Jazeera. A video from inside the facility shows guards walking away from the detainees, who stand helpless within their locked cells. The fire therefore demonstrates the clearly inhumane practices within migrant detention centers all along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Betty Camargo, the state programs director at the Border Network for Human Rights, stated that some detainees in Ciudad Juárez were told that they were being deported, despite the fact that many of them had temporary work permits. Authorities believe the fire was started by a detainee, using a mattress and a lighter, as a protest against their deportation. The detainee is being investigated along with other officers involved. “These devastating events lay bare a truly cruel system of immigration enforcement. How is it possible that the Mexican authorities left human beings locked up with no way to escape the fire?” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Indeed, the right to seek asylum is the 14th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and those who seek asylum must be protected by those who offer it. “Even if we are illegal or undocumented, we are human beings who feel. Look at what happened; some people are injured and are suffering the consequences of what happened,” said Venezuelan migrant, Emilio Jose. Detention must be eliminated in Mexico, as people who escape persecution and violence should not be punished for their migration. “These facilities are not ‘shelters’, but detention centers, and people are not ‘housed’ there, but deprived of their freedom,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said. The source of this tragedy is rooted in a context where people are forced to flee their countries in fear of repression and human rights violations. The current system in place makes it difficult for migrants to seek asylum, leaving them in extremely vulnerable situations.

In fact, an estimated 200,000 people try to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. every month. According to CNN, the Biden administration has ramped up efforts to curb rates of border crossing, including restrictive policies that largely prohibit migrants from applying for asylum in the U.S. if they have traveled through other countries on their way to the shared frontier. 69 people were affected by the destructive events of the recent fire, including people from Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela; all of whom have fled to the U.S. in search of protection from repressive governments, systemic poverty, and gang violence. The Biden administration’s new policies have put a strain on Mexico’s humanitarian infrastructure, largely due to the inability to provide safety for such a large number of migrants from so many countries, says Rafael Velásquez, country director for the IRC in Mexico. According to data shared by Amnesty International, the Mexican authorities held at least 318,660 people in migrant detention centers last year and expelled more than 106,000 children, adolescents, and adults, thus leaving over 400,000 people to make the dangerous journey to safety on their own.

This horrific incident act as a reminder of the cruel conditions upheld in immigration holding centers in Mexico, as well as the increasingly strict border policies enforced. The U.S. and Mexico must open the door for migrants both literally in burning buildings, and figuratively with fewer border restrictions. Those who undertake dangerous journeys to the U.S. in search of protection from repressive governments and violence should not be placed in detention centers in recompense for their efforts. This tragedy is proof of the dire need for better systems and policies to ensure safety for people in need of international protection.