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Gang Violence and Human Rights Violations Drive Migrants to Seek Protection in Mexico

In March 2019, the Bipartisan Policy Center published an analysis of Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) data which found that an increasing number of individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela were seeking humanitarian protection in Mexico. This influx has placed a strain on their humanitarian protection system. This piece examines the stated reasons individuals were seeking and receiving protection in Mexico since 2016. The analysis shows that an increasing number of individuals are seeking and receiving humanitarian protection in Mexico for gang-related threats and human rights violations. This trend aligns with the recent influx of Central American and Venezuelan migrants seeking protection in Mexico.

A review of COMAR data finds that generalized violence, which includes violent incidents related to extortion, recruitment, and threats from gangs, was the primary reason individuals applied for refugee status in Mexico. As Figure 1 shows, this category grew from 1,537 applicants in 2015 to 7,102 in 2016, before decreasing to 6,470 in 2017 as more individuals applied for protection for “personal reasons” and “internal conflict.” In 2018, however, the largest category was “not specified,” which may reflect the efforts of COMAR asylum officers to process the surge in refugee applications that year as quickly as possible with few resources, leaving little time to note the specifics of individual applicants.

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Figure 1: Number of Individuals Seeking Refugee Status in Mexico by Category (2013-2018)

Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

The majority of refugee grants in Mexico during this period were based on opposition to gangs or as victims of major human rights violations. As Figure 2 shows, grants of refugee status for the “Opposing Social Group” category, which consists of individuals opposed to gangs or other specific social categories, grew from 534 in 2015 to 2,015 in 2016, a group that largely consisted of Honduran and Salvadoran applicants. However, grants for the “Major Human Rights Violations” category surged from 329 in 2016 to 2,693 in 2017, which directly aligns with the influx of Venezuelans seeking refugee status in Mexico due to government-backed human rights abuses in 2016 and 2017. The approval of human rights violation claims for refugee status continued in the first part of 2018.

Figure 2: Number of Individuals Receiving Refugee Status in Mexico by Category (2013-2018)*

* The 2018 data covers January through September of that year.
Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

In terms of “complementary protection” status, an alternative form of humanitarian protection offered by Mexico to refugee applicants, most individuals received this designation for being the targets of gang activity. As Figure 3 shows, complementary protection status grants for the “Generalized Violence” category grew from 527 in 2016 to 1,287 in 2017 when more Hondurans and Salvadorans received this status. Given that Complementary Protection extends to individuals facing death or ill treatment upon returning home, this trend suggests that the Mexican government used this status to provide humanitarian protection to Central Americans who were fleeing gang violence after 2016.

Figure 3: Number of Individuals Receiving Complementary Protection Status in Mexico by Category (2013-2018)*

* The 2018 data covers January through September of that year.
Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

Although the Mexican government rejected some refugee applications, they were not a majority of the government’s refugee decisions. Overall rejections increased from 533 in 2013 to 2,060 in 2017, with most rejections stemming from an individual’s failure to meet the country’s legal standards for humanitarian protection. The increase however is mostly attributable to a larger number of applications. As Figure 4 shows, overall, rejections were a minority of refugee decisions. In 2013, the Mexican government rejected 37 percent of applications and in 2017 the rejection rate declined to 28 percent, suggesting that most individuals seeking protection in Mexico met the legal standards.

Figure 4: Percent Breakdown of Mexican Government Decisions for Refugee Applications (2013-2017)

Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

Some migrants abandoned their asylum applications in Mexico, with many simply failing to appear at COMAR appointments for their refugee applications. Those failing to appear for more than two weeks, without any explanation, are referred to as “absences” in the COMAR data. As Figure 5 shows, abandonments grew from 176 in 2013 to 4,205 in 2017, with abandonments due to absences increasing from 176 to 3,920 during this period. However, the absence category does not explain why individuals failed to appear for these appointments. We cannot determine whether it was for personal reasons, administrative factors such as the application backlog, or if they traveled to the United States to apply for asylum.

Figure 5: Number of Refugee Application Abandonments by Category (2013-2018)*

* The 2018 data covers January through September of that year.
Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

Lastly, some individuals withdrew their refugee applications for personal reasons (unspecified) or chose to return home. As Figure 6 shows, 2013, 2014, and 2016 saw more individuals withdraw and return to their home country, because the Mexican government did not issue a favorable outcome for their application. In contrast, more individuals withdrew from the process for personal reasons after receiving an unfavorable refugee decision in 2015 and 2017. More broadly, withdrawals decreased from 378 in 2014 to 290 in 2017, while abandonments increased.

Figure 6: Number of Refugee Application Withdrawals by Category (2013-2018)*

* The 2018 data covers January through September of that year.
Source: COMAR (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)

The COMAR data has several implications for understanding the Central American migrant crisis and the evolution of Mexico’s responses to this challenge. While these numbers do not cover every Central American migrant leaving for Mexico or the United States, they emphasize the gang-related activities that drive migrants to seek protection in these countries. For instance, the data strongly suggests that gang threats are a major driving force for these flows from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, even though homicide rates in these countries have decreased in recent years. Although the United States has provided aid to organizations in these three countries to tackle gang-related crime, the Trump administration’s recent decision to cut funding raises questions over whether these efforts will have the resources to be effective.

The data also challenges recent U.S.-based reporting which suggested newly installed Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has provided more humanitarian protection to Central American migrants than his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. The COMAR data shows that President Peña Nieto’s administration provided refugee and complementary protection to increasing numbers of applicants during the last two years of his administration. While COMAR has not published the final numbers for 2018, early reporting of this data suggests that President López Obrador maintained a similar policy with refugee applications at the end of 2018. However, President López Obrador’s decision to close programs granting temporary humanitarian visas to Central American migrants signaled that pressure from the Trump administration and the Mexican public to clamp down on migration into Mexico may push him to break away from his predecessor’s approach as Mexico grapples with managing the crisis.