As the Trump administration continues its efforts to prevent immigrants from crossing the Mexican border, a report released on Thursday by Doctors Without Borders serves as a stark reminder that many of those crossing the border are fleeing extreme violence and endure inhumane conditions before reaching the U.S.
In the last financial year, the vast majority (358,606 of 408,870 total) of those arrested in the Rio Grande Valley and on the southwest border were not Mexican, according to Customs and Border Protection numbers.
More than a quarter (137,366 of 408,870) of those arrested by CBP agents crossing the border from Mexico were unaccompanied minors and families with children. Most were Central American—from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries where gang violence and political instability threaten lives and force people to flee their homes.
“The violence experienced by the population of the NTCA [Northern Triangle of Central America] is not unlike that of individuals living through war. Citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences,” the report says.
Their report is based on data from and interviews with people treated at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) facilities in Mexico who had arrived from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and found that trauma and life-threatening experiences were widespread.
In October 2015, MSF interviewed 467 people from the three countries in various treatment facilities across Mexico. Those interviewed said they had experienced violence both in their home countries and in Mexico on their way to seek asylum in the U.S.:
68.3 percent of the migrant and refugee populations entering Mexico reported being victims of violence during their transit toward the United States.
Nearly one-third of the women surveyed had been sexually abused during their journey. MSF patients reported that the perpetrators of violence included members of gangs and other criminal organizations, as well as members of the Mexican security forces responsible for their protection.
Some 39.2% said they had fled their home countries because of direct attacks or threats to themselves or their families, extortion, or gang recruitment. Nearly half—43.5%—said a relative had been killed in the previous two years. That number was even higher (56.2%) for those from El Salvador, 54.8% of whom also said they had been victims of blackmail or extortion. One Salvadoran woman told MSF:
My husband was a police officer, and [also] worked with the Mara [criminal gang]. I was threatened several times by the other gangs, because they wanted to retaliate against my husband for being a spy. I survived this, but then they started to threaten my children. I thought I should leave. My sister lives in the USA. I thought I could go there and join her. But I never received an answer to my request. I had no other choice but to stay and try to survive. My husband was killed in 2015. Then they came, they raped my kid and chased me from my house. They said I should leave, or they would take my kids. I had no other choice.
The report also looked at medical data from the more than 4,700 patients from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Mexico in 2015 and 2016. Around 25% of medical consultations were related to physical injuries and trauma sustained en route to the U.S.
Of all the patients treated, 1,817 patients were seen for mental health issues. The report found that 92.2% of them had “lived through a violent event in their country of origin or during the route that threatens their mental health.”
“Attempts to stem migration by fortifying national borders and increasing detention and deportation, as we have seen in Mexico and the United States, do not curb smuggling and trafficking operations,” the report reads. “Instead, these efforts increase levels of violence, extortion and price of trafficking. As described in the report, these strategies have devastating consequences on the lives and health of people on the move.”
As part of his attempted halt on all refugee admissions to the U.S. (his executive orders were stayed by several legal appeals around the country), Trump tried to suspend Central American Minors, a program intended to help children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to apply for refugee status from their home countries.
“Border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America,” wrote then-Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson in October 2016. “Walls alone cannot prevent illegal migration. Ultimately, the solution is long-term investment in Central America to address the underlying push factors in the region.”
Thursday’s report is another compelling indication that a significant number of those who are being targeted by this administration’s immigration orders at the Mexican border are legitimate asylum seekers fleeing horrifying human rights abuses, both in their home countries and on their paths to seeking protection in the U.S.