Once Just a Transit Point, More Refugees Are Making Homes in Mexico

Thousands of asylum seekers are now hosted by the Latin nation, called “a strategic place” because it adjoins the United States. Facing discrimination, they struggle to find adequate jobs and housing, and some decide to remain.

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Once Just a Transit Point, More Refugees Are Making Homes in Mexico

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Viljean Celian (left), 33, repairs bicycles at Quiquica, a workshop that trains and employs migrants, refugees and asylum applicants in Mexico City. He is seen here with Luz Abril Reza López, the coordinator of Quiquica.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO ─ From a global perspective, Mexico is a bit player when it comes to hosting refugees and asylum seekers.

The country currently hosts 3,448 refugees ─ people who leave their country of origin because they fear being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group or political opinions. That number was reported in April in a press release by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Last year, 3,423 asylum seekers ─ people whose refugee claims have not yet been definitively evaluated ─ sought refuge in Mexico, according to the press release.

As of mid-2015, there were 1.84 million refugees in Turkey, according to a UNHCR report. Germany received the largest number of asylum applications in the first six months of 2015, at more than 159,000, though the report notes that repeated applications for some asylum seekers across Europe might distort the figure.

INSIDE THE STORY: A story about a program to train and employ migrants and refugees became something bigger: A look at Mexico’s refugees, including why they seek safety in a country long considered a transit point. Read more.

But Mexico plays an important role for people seeking asylum and refugee status, primarily because of its border with the U.S., says Alejandro de la Peña Rodríguez, assistant coordinator of psychosocial support at Sin Fronteras, an organization in Mexico City focused on the care of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

“We are a strategic place,” he says, referring to Mexico. “We are the place through which a ton of people who require international protection passes.”

Some migrants, while en route to the U.S., choose instead to remain in Mexico, de la Peña Rodríguez says.

Although, according to the UNHCR statement, the U.S. continues to be the main destination for asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, all located south of Mexico, Mexico too has seen an increase in applications in recent years.

Applications for refugee status in Mexico from Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans increased from 887 in 2013 to 3,137 last year, according to data from the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR), the national commission in charge of attending to refugee applications.

Central Americans are not the only people seeking refuge in Mexico. Haitians consistently submitted applications that numbered among the highest from Caribbean countries between 2013 and 2015, according to COMAR data.

Once in Mexico, refugees and asylum seekers sometimes struggle to find well-paying, stable jobs, quality housing or access to credit, among other services and benefits, according to a 2013 diagnostic of Mexico City, the nation’s capital, by the UNHCR office in Mexico in collaboration with government and local organizations, including COMAR and Sin Fronteras.

Those challenges come on top of linguistic barriers and discrimination that the refugees and asylum seekers sometimes face due to the color of their skin, de la Peña Rodríguez says.

Global Press Journal spoke with some of the refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico City. These are their stories.


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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

A 39-year-old Honduran refugee, who asked that he be identified only by his initial, J., shows his hands after his first week of work as a building painter in Mexico City. He left his home, he says, because criminal groups were extorting money from him.

Fruits, vegetables and other goods were on sale at the 39-year-old man’s wholesale business in Honduras, but in 2013, he says, gang members began to extort him.

The father of three asked that he be identified only by his first initial, J., for fear that he would jeopardize his family’s safety. He says the gang told him to pay them 1,000 Honduran lempiras (now $44.41) each week, or they would kill him.

“I agreed to pay it,” he says. “The amount was small, and I didn’t want to move from my country.”

About a year later, the price went up. The gang members told him to pay as much as 5,000 lempiras (now $222) each week.

Tired of the extortion and fearful that he would be killed whether or not he paid, J. says, he fled Honduras with his wife and children in January 2015.

Violence and insecurity are major obstacles to human rights in Honduras, according to a December 2015 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In 2013, the murder rate in Honduras was the highest in the world, according to the commission. The report cited the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, the national public university, which in a 2013 bulletin reported a rate of 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

J. says he left Honduras thinking that he would seek asylum in the United States. After crossing Mexico’s southern border, he hired a smuggler to help the family travel through Mexico and cross the U.S. border, but that smuggler abandoned them in Mexico City, he says.

There, J. says, he decided to surrender himself to police and seek refuge in Mexico. More than a year later, he and his family were granted this status, he says.

“I was really looking for peace for my family, and I have found it here, and that’s why I have stayed here,” he says.

Life in Mexico is radically different from what it was in Honduras. He was once his family’s sole breadwinner, but now his wife and two children, ages 18 and 16, work, too. J., who struggled to find work that utilizes his experience as a store owner, paints buildings.

But he says he dreams of owning a restaurant or café in Mexico. He attended an entrepreneurship workshop at the Casa de Acogida, Formación y Empoderamiento para la Mujer Migrante y Refugiada, an organization that supports migrants, women and refugee families or refugee applicants in Mexico City. He didn’t miss a single class, he says.

“I want something different for my life and for my family,” he says.


Viljean Celian left Haiti, his birth country, in December 2013. He says he was kidnapped nine months before that.

Celian says that one night, when he was leaving work, a group of men hit him on the head. He says he was gagged and tied, and then the men took him away in a car.

Celian lived alone in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. He neither had a wife nor children. His father lived in another city. When the kidnappers demanded $8,000 as ransom, Celian says, he turned to his uncle, his closest relative in that city.

Celian says he was held captive for 15 days while his uncle gathered the money.

“Now I am very afraid,” he says, describing his feeling then.

Kidnapping for ransom is a problem in Haiti, so much so that the U.S. Department of State provided details of the threat in a 2014 crime and safety report on the country. The number of kidnapped U.S. citizens dropped “drastically” in 2013, according to the report, but it also notes that kidnappers do not consider nationality. Haitians are widely reported to be at ongoing risk of kidnapping.

But that was not the only reason Celian wanted to leave Haiti. He painted houses and worked in construction in Haiti, he says, and he wanted to find a better job.

The World Bank, in a 2015 report, calls Haiti one of the “poorest and least equal countries in the world.”

Celian, 33, left Haiti en route to Mexico because of its access to the U.S., the country he saw as the place of opportunity, even though he knew it would be difficult to enter legally.

It took Celian two years to get as far as Mexico. He worked temporarily in both Ecuador and Brazil to earn what he needed to continue from each place, he says. He learned a little Spanish along the way.

Now, he’s in Mexico, where he thinks he has a shot at getting formal refugee status. While he waits for a response from the Mexican government about his application, Celian has begun to build his life.

Since February, he’s been receiving training as a mechanic at Quiquica, a bicycle shop that trains and employs migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. So far, he says, he’s learned to change tires, repair wheels and fix brakes and chains, he says.

“[I am] learning. I like my job a lot,” he says. “First time that I work in mechanics.”

But if he doesn’t receive refugee status or find a job in Mexico, his journey might continue north, Celian says. The U.S. is still a possibility.

El Salvador

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

María, 55, from El Salvador, works as a maid in Mexico City. She left her home after gang members threatened her.

María says her application for refugee status in Mexico was denied. The reason, she says, was that she didn’t give sufficient evidence that she needs refuge.

After her application was processed, the 55-year-old El Salvador native received a visitors’ document for humanitarian reasons so she could be in the country legally. The document expires this June, she says.

But no matter what, she says, she can’t go back.

Gang members tried to force María’s 17-year-old granddaughter to sell their marijuana at her school, she says. Since the teenager rejected them, María first took her out of school and then sent her out of the country, to Mexico, to protect her from the gang.

She says she reported the gang members to the police before she fled El Salvador herself in February 2015. María says she’s afraid the gang will take its revenge if she ever returns. She asked that only her middle name be used, to protect her identity.

In interviews conducted by UNHCR in 2015 with 160 women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, more than 60 percent cited direct threats and attacks by armed criminal groups as at least one of the primary reasons for leaving their country of origin. Some women described incidents in which a loved one was forcibly disappeared or murdered by armed criminal groups, incidents that usually involved threats or extortion.

After more than a year in Mexico City, María says she has adjusted to her new life.

“I already [feel] confident here in Mexico,” she says.

She has met people, in organizations that aid refugees, who have helped her find a job as a maid and a place to live. But she’s faced discrimination, she says, because she’s a foreigner.

“There are people who when one tells them ‘I’m not from here,’ the change is seen in them,” she says. “I would ask, and no one would give me directions. It’s as if they are running away from someone. Perhaps for the accent you speak, they ignore you.”

María has family members in the U.S. who have proposed that she migrate north. But María says she prefers to stay and work in Mexico’s capital. She’s saving money to bring another grandchild, a 14-year-old boy, to Mexico from El Salvador.

Democratic Republic of Congo

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Dider, a 38-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says he has faced difficulties living in Mexico. His salary doesn’t cover his family’s expenses.

The 38-year-old says he left his home in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 because of his political beliefs.

The man, who prefers to be identified by the name Didier to protect his identity, says he was persecuted because of those beliefs.

Political tensions have increased in DRC over the past year, according to Human Rights Watch. The organization reports that government authorities have used threats, violence and arbitrary arrests to silence people who oppose them. Conflict and violence toward civilians remain widespread in many areas of eastern DRC, according to a March 2015 report by Oxfam International.

Didier chose Mexico as his destination on the recommendation of a friend. But once he arrived, he says, he spent three days in a hotel, unable to contact that friend.

Without money or knowing anyone, he returned to the airport, the only place he knew, he says. Workers there put him in contact with the immigration authorities.

Didier now lives in Mexico City with refugee status, he says. His family joined him in November. Sin Fronteras has been helping him during his refugee application process and transition, he adds.

Mexico is beautiful, the man says, but life is difficult. He found work teaching French, but his wife hasn’t found work.

“It’s difficult, it’s very difficult,” he says.

In DRC, Didier worked under a contract with a fixed salary. But the 8,000 Mexican pesos ($460) he earns each month in Mexico City is insufficient to cover needs, he says.

“I pay the rent, 4,000 pesos [$230], with the wife, my children, [need] my children to drink milk each morning, in the evening,” he says.

Didier’s growing concern, however, is whether he can hold a job long enough to support his family.

“How will I pay the rent? How will my children live?” he asks.


Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.