Migrants and activists light candles at a vigil

Migrants and activists light candles at a vigil on March 28, 2023 for migrants who died in a fire at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico.

(Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Blame Horrific Mexico Fire on 'Inhumane' Migration Policies

"The U.S. and Mexican governments must work together to ensure that migrants receive access to asylum and to fair and efficient processing at the border and are given humanitarian support when forced to wait in Mexico," said one advocate.

Calling for a full investigation into the fire that killed at least 38 people at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico this week, United Nations officials on Tuesday joined human rights groups in calling for an end to the U.S. and Mexican migration policies which led to the detention of dozens of men at the facility.

A spokesperson for the U.N. said all member states must "live up to the commitments they have made as signatories to the U.N.-led Global Compact for Migration," which "intends to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities migrants face at different stages of migration by respecting, protecting, and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance."

"We, again, urge all states to adopt alternatives to immigration detention," said the U.N. human rights office.

The 68 men who were being held at the migration facility were mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, and El Salvador originally, and Reuters reported Wednesday that many migrants had been "rounded up off the streets of Ciudad Juarez on Monday" and taken to the center, which is run by Mexico's National Migration Institute (NMI).

A woman named Viangly Infante told the outlet that her husband was among those detained and that the couple had traveled from their home country of Venezuela last fall with their three children, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in December into Eagle Pass, Texas.

They were then sent back to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities and bused to Ciudad Juarez.

"We cannot ignore that many of these migrants continue to wait in border cities like Ciudad Juarez without documentation so they can enter the United States to seek protection—a situation created by successive U.S. administrations' undue restrictions on asylum access," said Rachel Schmidtke, senior advocate for Latin America at Refugees International. "The U.S. and Mexican governments must work together to ensure that migrants receive access to asylum and to fair and efficient processing at the border and are given humanitarian support when forced to wait in Mexico."

The U.N. Refugee Agency in January warned the Biden administration that its expansion of former President Donald Trump's Title 42 policy—under which the White House is expelling up to 30,000 migrants per month unless they arrive in the U.S. via a humanitarian parole program—is "not in line with refugee law standards" by which the U.S. is obligated to abide.

Like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the NMI in Mexico has long been denounced by migrant rights advocates over its treatment of people in its detention facilities, including overcrowding and lack of medical care. Protests broke out last year in detention centers in Tijuana and the southern city of Tapachula, near the border of Guatemala.

The fire that broke out early Tuesday was reportedly started by migrants who were protesting their confinement in a cell intended for a maximum of 50 people in which 68 people were being detained, and the guards' refusal to provide them with drinking water.

Outrage over the fire, in which at least 29 people have been hospitalized in addition to those who were killed, was compounded Wednesday after newly released surveillance footage footage showed guards quickly walking away from the cell where the men were protesting, while smoke filled the room.

The men were trapped behind padlocked doors as they yelled for help, NBC News reported.

"How could they not get them out?" Katiuska Márquez, a Venezuelan woman who was looking for her half-brother, asked the Associated Press.

The deaths of more than three dozen people in the fire "lay bare a truly inhumane system of immigration enforcement," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. "How is it possible that the Mexican authorities left human beings locked up with no way to escape the fire? These facilities are not 'shelters,' but detention centers, and people are not 'housed' there, but deprived of their freedom."

Amnesty called on Mexican officials to adhere to a recent ruling by the country's Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN), which said on March 15 that people should not be held in migrant detention facilities for more than 36 hours.

"Amnesty International urges the Mexican state to comply with the ruling of the SCJN and to establish protocols to act in fires, as well as evacuation routes in such situations," said the group. "It also calls on the state to investigate the human rights violations, especially the allegations that the migrants were left locked up while the fire occurred, as well as to recognize that the migrants were in its custody and, therefore, it was its obligation both to prevent the fire and to act diligently during the fire to avoid fatal consequences."

The court ruling made clear, said Edith Olivares Ferreto, executive director of Amnesty International Mexico, that the country must "put an end to the practices that have caused untold damage, including torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, to thousands of migrants who have passed through these centers."

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