Guest post by Fred Dunwoodie Stirton. Fred is a researcher based at the University of Gloucestershire who spent 2020 living and researching in Mexico. His main research interests include forced migration, asylum policy, community-led development and community integration.


Upon taking office in December 2018, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO) claimed that Mexico would not do the ‘trabajo sucio (dirty work)’ of the United States on migration. He also promised a change in approach with an increased focus on humanitarianism calling for coordination between Mexico, the governments of Central American nations, and the United States.

The majority of international focus remains on Mexico’s border with the United States. Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the border, the outcries over the detention of child migrants, and the poor conditions of the thousands of asylum seekers trapped on the Mexican side of the border have all gained substantial coverage. However, on Mexico’s southern border there has been increased militarisation and a change in policy leading to the externalisation of the US border—that is, Mexico enforces its southern border to serve the interests of U.S. immigration policy.

Mexico has seen a growth in asylum requests (almost 70,000 in 2019 compared to under 30,000 in 2018), largely a result of violence and criminality in Central American countries, such as Honduras and El Salvador. Coupled with the increased demand for relief, as part of an austerity drive, AMLO has cut funding to the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (Mexican Commission to Aid Refugees, COMAR). COMAR has struggled to cope with processing the applications, leaving thousands with long delays for the processing of their asylum applications.

The asylum crisis on the southern border has become intertwined with attempts to tackle violent crime and restore public safety. AMLO created the National Guard in 2019 in the latest attempt to stem the tide of widespread insecurity throughout the country. However, it quickly drifted from its original stated mission toward border militarisation. The first deployment of the National Guard was not to target criminal organisations involved in the drugs trade, rather 12,000 were sent to the Mexico-Guatemala border to prevent migrants from entering Mexico.

This was largely a response to threats from the Trump administration to impose tariffs on Mexican goods in June 2019, following publicity about Central American migrant ‘caravans’ attempting to get to the United States. The Mexican government chose appeasement of Trump over its initial commitments to eschew Trump's 'dirty work' and pursue humane treatment of migrants. This has led to a coordinated expansion of the US border, with the US providing funding for the construction of communication towers along Mexico’s southern border as well as biometric equipment to the detention centres.

The deployment of the National Guard has made life even more precarious for migrants. They have been forced to take more dangerous routes leaving them vulnerable to assault, murder, rape, kidnapping and falling into the hands of criminal organisations. It has also led to increased detentions of migrants, with 31,416 migrants apprehended in June 2019 — three times the amount of the year before — after the National Guard was deployed along the southern border.

With migrant detention centres at overcapacity, the outbreak of COVID-19 created added pressures. Many detainees are unable to return to their countries due to travel restrictions put in place by their own countries. As a result, the sustained overcrowding and unsafe conditions in many detention centres has led to protests and hunger strikes, such as at the Siglo XXI migrant detention centre in Tapachula, Chiapas.

Looking forward, the situation is likely to be exacerbated further with increased push factors for northward migration from Central American states following the economic fallout of COVID-19 and hurricanes Eta and Iota, which have impacted particularly hard the region’s most vulnerable populations with mudslides, flooding, and power outages. While not a particularly prominent issue in national Mexican politics, the situation at the southern border could become rise in significance with upcoming legislative elections in 2021 across Mexico. To the North, the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States of America, is likely to see a change in policy. However, it is too early to predict what impact this will have.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Dunwoodie, F. (2021). The Deteriorating Conditions for Asylum Seekers at Mexico’s Southern Border. Available at: [date]