MEXICO CITY — As Antonio*, 68, and his young nephew were driving home from work in Honduras, street gang members cornered them and demanded an extortion fee. Unable to pay, they shot and killed Antonio’s nephew in front of him.
Gathering a few things, Antonio joined refugees and migrants who were walking and hitchhiking north through Mexico in search of safety. The trek is not easy for an old man like Antonio. He had to sleep outside, in low temperatures, and he got sick on the way.
“This walk is not a red carpet, but a carpet full of thorns,” he said, covering his head with a thick scarf. “I am old and sick. I have blisters.”
He is one of more than 4,700 refugees and migrants from a so-called “human caravan” who reached Mexico City after a 26-day journey. They got a place to sleep at the Jesús Martínez “Palillo” stadium, in the east of the Mexican capital.
Three huge white plastic tents were set up to accommodate the exhausted men, women and children who made the grueling hike. The stadium lawn is now covered with blankets and backpacks. Drying clothes hang on the fences and the grandstand has turned into bunk beds.
Driven by despair – violence, persecution, death threats, sexual abuse, lack of food and jobs – some 500 people left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on foot on 12 October. As the procession headed north, through Guatemala and then into southern Mexico, thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans joined the caravan, which at one point reached more than 7,000 people.
“They threatened me all the time – on the street, in the shops, everywhere.”
The roughly 1,000 miles between San Pedro Sula and Mexico City took their toll on the people in the caravan, who in various places broke up into small groups. People walked for hours in the sun, often in flip-flops, carrying children, dragging strollers, often with little to drink or eat.
Mitzy is perched on the concrete steps of the stadium, clutching her one-year-old baby, trying to recover from the grueling trip. Luis, her baby, suffered from dehydration and was hospitalized twice. “Under the sun, your skin burns and you have big headaches,” she explains.
The turning point that caused Mitzy to flee Honduras with her entire family – her husband and three children – came when a street gang demanded that his 14-year-old daughter become the girlfriend of one of its members. If they didn’t comply, they would kill Mitzy.
“They were threatening me all the time — on the street, in the stores, everywhere,” Mitzy says. “They knew everything about our whereabouts, our work schedule, when we went to church.”
Her husband Miguel, a construction worker, was also threatened by the gang, who demanded a so-called “war tax”. Earning only US$8 a day, he found it impossible to meet the gang’s demands.
“Many times I was walking down the street, coming home from work, and these bad people would stop me, strip me naked, and leave me completely naked,” he says.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has in recent years supported growing numbers of people from northern Central America seeking asylum in Mexico. In recent weeks, it has had to step up its response to cope with the increase in the number of people fleeing violence in their homes and seeking protection there.
“When I walked down the street, they threw garbage at me.”
“The numbers are much larger than the asylum system and the existing shelters are equipped, so we had to quickly build up the response capacity, especially to deal with the risks for families, unaccompanied children and other people. at risk,” says Mark Manly, UNHCR Representative in Mexico. .
With the support of UNHCR, the Mexican government has so far registered more than 3,264 asylum applications. The UN Refugee Agency and its NGO partners have an outreach team at Palillo Stadium to identify people who wish to apply for asylum in Mexico City and provide them with legal advice.
Those who file claims are referred to the Mexican Commission for Refugees and moved to shelters in the sprawling Mexican capital where specialist services are available, including counseling and integration support.
In response to a request from the Mexican government, UNHCR has doubled the size of its team in Tapachula, in the southern state of Chiapas bordering Guatemala, to more than 45 people, including emergency shelter specialists and of recording. Staff and legal aid partners provided information about the Mexican asylum system to more than 4,000 people in several other caravans heading north across the border.
To strengthen the capacity to process asylum applications, UNHCR provided the Mexican Refugee Commission with 25 additional contract staff. It is working with civil protection and municipal authorities to increase shelter capacity, adding more than 400 beds in Tapachula alone. Protection teams are present in the shelters to meet the needs of families, unaccompanied children and other people who are particularly at risk, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, collectively referred to as LGBTI.
Lili, a 22-year-old trans woman, felt unsafe in Honduras, where she was bullied and excluded from her community.
“When I walked down the street, they threw garbage at me,” she said. “That’s why I fled my country. I want a better future, to have a job and to be able to help my family back in Honduras.
“The numbers are much larger than the asylum system and the existing shelters are equipped.”
She joined the caravan because she felt it was a safer way to travel. As she stops to rest at the stadium, she says she plans to seek asylum in Mexico. “I thought about asking for help, because I came alone. I really need to ask for protection.
Mexico has been very welcoming, says Lili. People offered them food, clothes, drinking water. “I was not discriminated against at all,” she says. “I feel freer here than in my country.
Among the most vulnerable during the week-long march in search of safety is Nancy, who is eight months pregnant. Lying on a thin mattress on the floor of one of the large tents, she hugs her three-year-old child to her protruding stomach.
Nancy has another daughter, who is six years old, in Honduras. The girl stays with her grandmother. “I didn’t want her to miss school,” she says. They try to reach the United States, where Nancy’s brother lives.
“Parts of the trip were very difficult for me,” says Nancy. “Carrying my baby under such a high temperature during the day and being cold at night.”
The number of Central American refugees and migrants arriving in Mexico City is increasing daily. Two other smaller caravans from Central America, with about 3,000 people in total, have recently entered Mexico’s southern border and are heading north.
* The names of the refugees have been changed for protection reasons.
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