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23 September 2019

Defenders Beyond Borders: Migrant Rights Defenders Under Attack in Central America, Mexico & the United States

A new joint report from three international human rights organisations has revealed that migrant rights defenders protecting migrant families, refugees, asylum seekers, and others along migrant routes from Honduras to the United States are facing severe threats from both state and non-state actors. The report, Defenders Beyond Borders, launching this week in Washington, DC and Mexico City, combines research from Front Line Defenders (FLD), Programa de Asuntos Migratorios de la Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana-Ciudad de México (PRAMI) and Red TDT, and features documentation and first hand accounts of attacks and arrests in the US and Mexico, perpetrated by US Customs and Border Protection, Mexican federal police, non-state militia groups, and the Mexican military.

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Researchers interviewed more than 30 human rights defenders in 10 cities on both sides of the Mexico-US border, and along migration routes in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Many defenders interviewed are current migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented people themselves.

The investigation found dozens of cases of assault, arrest, deportation, detention, interrogation, intimidation, digital surveillance and harassment inflicted against activists, journalists, humanitarians, and lawyers carrying out legitimate and peaceful human rights work.

Andrew Anderson, Front Line Defenders Executive Director, said the targetted group includes lawyers and “those helping migrants to understand and prepare for legal immigration processes. HRDs accompanying asylum seekers at US ports of entry receive threats from armed CBP agents. Similarly, in Mexico, shelter organizers and activists who accompany migrants through visa regularisation processes are threatened – often by the military – for helping people navigate the state’s own system.”

“Mexico’s increasingly militarized response to migration follows the decades-long US strategy of prevention by deterrence and the intentional weaponization of the desert, resulting in thousands of human remains found in the borderlands. This militarized assault on migrant rights defenders is especially dangerous for women HRDs, queer activists, and undocumented community organizers. WHRDs in Texas and California have received graphic, sexualized death threats from pro-Trump social media accounts and militia groups based on the border, while queer defenders are routinely subjected to sexual harassment at US ports of entry. For undocumented HRDs, arrests related to their visible activism could result in indefinite detention in ICE custody – where transwomen have been beaten and died – or deportation.”
- Erin Kilbride, Research & Visibility Coordinator, Front Line Defenders

HRDs in Guatemala, Mexico and the US have been arrested, assaulted and put on trial for the provision of humanitarian aid including distributing food, water and medical supplies. Activists across Mexico report that the Mexican military is increasingly raiding, threatening, and harassing emergency shelters for migrant families.

The report found that immigration policies are also exacerbating threats from organised criminal groups, who often view HRDs as disrupting trafficking revenues. As defenders respond to the humanitarian emergency caused by the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, known as “Remain in Mexico,” for example, those organizing shelters and providing emergency aid in Mexican border towns report a marked spike in threats from local organized criminal groups seeking to profit off the influx of vulnerable migrants.