Wednesday 20 October 2021

Refugees at US-Mexican border: ‘We can’t save them all’

The Biden administration wants to abandon the previous government's hard-line stance on asylum. Many refugees now hope they can start a new life in the US. DW reports from Matamoros, Mexico.

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Cesar Moncada, his wife and two children have settled down on an abandoned porch. Three other Honduran families are hunkered down beside them in sleeping bags. They seem exhausted. It has taken them months to reach Mexico on foot.

Cesar Moncada and his family left Honduras after being blackmailed by gangs

“We were told refugees like us would be able to cross over to the other side from Matamoros,” Cesar tells DW. A bridge spanning the Rio Grande connects Matamoros with Brownsville, a small town in the US state of Texas.

Two years ago, thousands of refugees occupied a Matamoros park running along the US-Mexican border. Over time, and thanks to donated tents and blankets, the informal settlement grew into a de facto refugee camp. Today, it’s home to some 4,000 individuals.

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After his election, US President Joe Biden issued a decree allowing them to cross the border and apply for asylum. This is welcomed news for those who have spent years stranded at Matamoros refugee camp.

Fleeing mortal danger

Cesar hails from a small village near San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, more than 2,000 kilometers from Matamoros. “My country is beautiful,” he tells DW. “It is our home, but we were forced to leave everything behind.”

Cesar owns a hair salon on the village high street. One day, a gang dominating the local drug trade informed him he would have to pay them 1,500 lempiras (€52, or $60) per month “for the right to keep using the shop.”

“1,500 lempiras!,” he says incredulously. “I only made 2,000 lempiras from my salon each month, and from that I had to pay rent, buy food, and pay off debts.” He says there was no way he could have afforded to pay the gang. “But I knew this gang controls my village.”

Then, he says, “I received a first threat that they would harm my 6-year-old daughter if I don’t pay up.” Soon, a second one followed. The gang said they would force Cesar’s 13-year-old son to join their ranks unless he complies. “What do you do then? What is a father, a husband, a human supposed to do?”

This bridge connects Matamoros in Mexico with Brownsville in the US

Leaving everything behind

Cesar and his wife decided to flee. They packed their rucksacks and set off, leaving behind their house, the hair salon, and everything else. Cesar says they mainly traveled by foot, and occasionally by bus. They first reached the Mexican town of Reynosa, on the US-Mexican border. But there, Cesar says, nobody could tell them how and where to apply for US asylum.

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After hearing that refugees are allowed to cross the border at Matamoros, they set off by foot along with three other Honduran families. Yet after making the 90-kilometer trek to Matamoros, they were refused entry to the local refugee camp.

“They said they want to close the camp,” says Cesar. “We asked them if we could at least have some blankets before they are thrown away, but they refused even that.”

More and more families have been arriving in Matamoros. Some 50 individuals have joined the four families that recently arrived. Josselin is one of them. Crying, she recounts how her brother-in-law was murdered by Honduran gangs right in front of her eyes. That’s when, she says, her husband decided it was time to flee.

The camp in Matamoros is scheduled to close down soon

Most refugees stranded in Matamoros hail from Honduras. And many have similarly harrowing tales to tell. They have escaped near-certain death, hoping for a better and safer life in the US.

Nowhere to go

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Jose Luis is a US citizen, who lives near the US border town of Brownsville. Together with his wife and other volunteers, he previously supported refugees stranded at the Matamoros camp. Jose Luis does not want to give his surname, fearing repercussions from the police.

Now, Jose Luis is working to help refugees like Cesar and his family, who have nowhere to go. “The most important thing is finding accommodation for them.” He says Matamoros is “a dangerous city, where many prey on vulnerable families.” Adding that the “Polleros, for example, charge migrants for showing them the best spots for supposedly crossing the Rio Grande.”

The town, he says, is teeming with criminals. Refugee children, he adds, are particularly at risk. That’s why, he says, “They need a place to stay right now.”

Jose Luis previously took in migrants who were granted entry to the US, yet did not know where to head next. Asylum-seekers who enter the US and do not have friends or relatives to stay with often rely on the nongovernmental organization to grant them accommodation.

“Reception centers on the Mexican side are all full,” Jose Luis tells DW. “Not even the Matamoros pastor can take anyone in anymore; they’re at full capacity because of COVID-19.”

Deported back to Honduras

Several days later, DW reconnects with Jose Luis. He seems both frustrated and sad. “There are so many men like Cesar,” he says. “We cannot save them all.” Jose Luis tells DW he spoke to the Honduran father several hours ago.

Mexican police drove Cesar, his family and the others from the abandoned porch where they had sheltered. In their panic, the families ran in opposite directions, instead of staying together.

Jose Luis says police caught and arrested Cesar and his family. “They are being deported back to Honduras.”

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