At least 39 people died in a fire at a government migration detention facility in northern Mexico on Monday night, and another 29 were still in hospital with injuries, authorities said.
The dead, who were all migrants, were mostly from Central America and Venezuela. They were being held at a detention centre in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Tuesday morning that the migrants had set fire to mattresses at the door of the facility in protest at their imminent deportation. “We assume it was because that they knew they were going to be deported,” he said at his morning news conference.
The fire comes as migration from Central and South America through Mexico towards the US has been running near the highest levels in 20 years, driven by economic hardship and political repression. Many are from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
US customs and border patrol encountered more than 2.7 million migrants at the southern US border in the year to September. Thousands are stranded in cities on the Mexican side of the border, trying to navigate a confusing patchwork of policies from the US government over who can request asylum and how.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the incident, saying policies on both sides of the border were putting migrants at risk. Images in local media from the scene showed more than a dozen bodies on the ground outside the building, some covered in foil blankets.
The groups say Mexico’s government has also been doing the United States’ bidding by trying to stop migrants reaching and crossing the border. López Obrador has deployed the National Guard to stop migrants and in 2022 more than 400,000 migrants were apprehended, while more than 100,000 were deported from Mexico, according to statistics from the National Immigration Institute (INM).
The migrant deaths were “a clear demonstration of the deadly consequences of the US’s outsourcing of immigration enforcement to Mexico”, said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This isn’t the first time the Mexican government’s negligent response to a fire at a detention centre has led to deaths.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to walk a fine line on migration, simultaneously implementing tougher measures with expanded legal pathways. Republicans have hammered the administration for being too soft on the issue, while migrant rights groups say he has embraced Trump-era restrictions.
Last month, Mr Biden unveiled a new rule that would force most asylum seekers to make an appointment before crossing.
In a statement, the INM said it was co-ordinating with consular services of different countries to identify the dead.
“This is proof of the extremely urgent need to ensure that there are systems in place to provide safety for people in need of international protection,” Rafael Velásquez, country director for the International Rescue Committee in Mexico, said of the fire. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023