IDC Statement: Mexico City, April 4, 2023

Last week’s tragedy in Mexico is yet further evidence of a culmination of decades of laws, policies and practices that prioritise immigration control over the rights and lives of human beings. It clearly demonstrates the life-threatening impact of implementing migration governance systems that are based on enforcement and control – people are stripped of their humanity, even in the face of death. 

International Detention Coalition (IDC) stands in solidarity with the victims and survivors of this violence, along with their families, communities, human rights advocates and defenders, and others who recognise the urgent need to protect and honour human life, and abolish immigration detention around the world. 

On the night of March 27th, a fire broke out in the  padlocked cell of the immigration detention centre in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, run by Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). This fire took the lives of at least 38 people migrating from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador and Venezuela, and injured 29 others who are currently being treated in hospital. Evidence available to date indicates that this tragic loss of human life could have been immediately avoided if emergency protocols (including access to an emergency exit) had been in place and implemented, and the gate of the cell had been unlocked. When IDC visited Juárez detention centre in September 2022, we observed first hand the evident overcrowding in a small space, with no ventilation or natural light, as well as the negative impact on people’s mental health, caused by systematic mistreatment and dehumanisation, as well as lack of access to information about their cases. 

Unfortunately, this tragedy is not an isolated incident. Each and every loss of life of people migrating in Mexico could have been prevented if repeated recommendations made by international, regional and national human rights bodies, as well as policy guidance from experts and civil society organisations, had been taken into account and properly integrated into Mexico’s immigration policies and implemented. Instead, over the past twenty years, Mexico securitised its migration policy, increasing reliance on detention, and more recently, deployed its National Guard, to enforce compliance with restrictive immigration laws. The INM´s Statistical Bulletin for 2022 shows 444,439 detentions in its 57 official immigration detention facilities across the country. Further, the inability of the United States government to adopt humane border policies and establish accessible, safe and legal pathways for migration only increases the risks and pressures faced by people migrating through Mexico to seek protection. 

For more than two decades, the systematic violation of the rights of migrants and refugees deprived of their liberty in the INM’s estaciones migratorias and estancias provisionales, has been documented by migrant and refugee rights advocates, including IDC and its members, and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Committee for the Protection of Migrant Workers, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and other bodies. Key reports available below have identified consistently deplorable conditions, a stark lack of regulation, supervision, and standard health and safety protocols, as well as recurrent impunity of actions inside detention without civil society access to monitor conditions or provide legal representation. Testimonies of people who were formerly detained in Mexico’s immigration detention centres attest to the extent to which being deprived of one’s freedom pushes emotional stability to the limit, exacerbated by a lack of information about their proceedings, length of stay in detention, family separation, inhumane treatment, among other reasons.

International human rights mechanisms and bodies are increasingly calling on States to gradually abolish the use of immigration detention all together, including through the obligation to consider and use alternatives to detention in the first instance, and through developing and scaling up alternatives to detention in practice. Equally, governments (including Mexico) have committed to prioritise the use of alternatives and to work towards ending immigration detention in multilateral global agreements such as the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, where policy guidance and peer-learning exchange is available. 

Deaths of people who migrate and other human rights violations are almost inevitable in the context of immigration detention, more often than not, an arbitrary deprivation of liberty as part of a wider trend of criminalising people on the move. Evidence of best and promising practice across the world, including in Mexico, shows that such harms could be avoided by ensuring immigration detention is the exception not the rule and by prioritising alternatives. 

In particular, it is notable that in several South American countries, like Ecuador and Colombia, with similarly large numbers of people on the move, the right to freedom has been prioritised over migration control by way of legal prohibitions on immigration detention unless by exceptional judicial order and expansive regularisation programmes. IDC has also identified a range of well-developed practices, including community-based non-custodial options that utilise case management and other forms of holistic support in the community, and is adapted to the specific needs and strengths of each person or family.

In a ground-breaking study in 2013, IDC identified existing mechanisms in law, policy and practice, and shared with the Mexican government a range of proposed alternatives that could be developed and implemented to reduce detention. Many of these retain their relevance today. 

Positive outcomes have subsequently been seen in the community-based pilot programme for unaccompanied children coordinated by IDC and the government’s ad hoc release programme, supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that benefited over 18,000 asylum seekers to live in freedom in the community while awaiting their asylum decision. Furthermore, in 2020, the Mexican Congress recognised that immigration detention is no place for a child, and prohibited detention of children for migration-related reasons. In a recent landmark decision, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared the current legislated time periods for immigration detention as unconstitutional. 

Yet the horror of last week’s fire and loss of life shows us that more must be done. IDC believes that the indignation and the recurrent harm suffered by people in immigration detention in Mexico demand an unwavering commitment to building a migration governance system that values life, and does not enhance systems of dehumanisation and disregard. 

IDC joins the appeal to the Mexican government to take heed of the vast number of human rights bodies´ recommendations and civil society expert guidance to reform its harmful immigration policies and prevent further loss to human life. IDC highlights the following five key recommendations:

1. Establish a presumption in favour of liberty in national law and legislate the prohibition on immigration detention.

2. Mandate the obligation to first consider rights-based non-custodial alternatives to detention in law and policy. In particular, upfront screening and individual assessments, application of the least intrusive or restrictive measure, prioritising measures that focus on engagement and allow for case management and case resolution. 

3. Abide by the Supreme Court of Justice’s ruling that declared the current legislated time periods for immigration detention as unconstitutional. 

4. Eradicate the use of euphemistic terminology (such as “assurance,” “protection,” “presentation,” “lodging,” “shelter,” “referral office” and “rescue”) in laws, policies and public communications to refer to detention and deprivation of liberty where people are in state custody. 

5. Facilitate monitoring and supervision places of detention allowing access and monitoring by civil society organisations and international agencies guaranteeing that health and safety protocols are implemented.  

 IDC and its members bear witness every day to the devastating and long-term human cost of immigration detention, including on the physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities in Mexico, as well as in neighbouring countries. IDC stands in solidarity with all those seeking justice for these wrongful deaths in Chihuahua. We will never stop advocating to build a world where immigration detention no longer exists, and where people who migrate live with rights and dignity.


Additional Resources and Information

Key reports with recommendations to Mexico on immigration detention:

Key IDC Resources