Agosto 24, 2021

The limits of humanitarian support. Pandemic, informal care and irregular migration in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Picture from the author.

The presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was added to the restriction and hardening of borders in the migratory corridor linking the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala), Mexico and the United States. The pandemic brought with it diverse effects in terms of mobility and in the humanitarian attention provided to the irregular migrant population in Mexico. This paper presents the case of a shelter located in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, Mexico.


In Mexico there are humanitarian support institutions whose volunteers provide care to people in an irregular migratory situation, who transit in a context of risk, uncertainty, and precariousness. Given that care work constitutes the foundation of social reproduction, by maintaining human life, it acquires centrality throughout these transits, since accompanying, facilitating processes, being available to provide care and some type of service is fundamental to the lives of migrants. Migrants find themselves in a transitory dependency as they do not have the resources to be autonomous, lack a fixed space to satisfy their basic needs and are exposed to illnesses or ailments that require immediate attention.


The volunteers collaborate in the maintenance of human life in extremely precarious conditions, through the execution of activities such as a. the care of health emergencies, accidents caused by the posts placed by the railroad company, falls on the train, persecution, inclement weather; b. The preparation of food, which involves creativity and ingenuity in the face of scarce resources and the need to feed the entire population housed. c. The cleaning and maintenance to preserve hygienic conditions and not to worsen health conditions, since they arrive with stomach and respiratory problems, dehydration, and sunstroke.


In February 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Mexico was reported. The strategy implemented was the “Jornada Nacional de Sana Distancia” which prioritized social distancing, under the premise of staying at home voluntarily. This had several consequences on mobility: the need for confinement to avoid contagion, the opening of migratory stations, the closing of borders, the expulsion of the migrant population in irregular conditions and their rapid deportation. In the context of this sanitary emergency, several shelters closed their doors. In the northern part of the country, many had to stop due to the saturation generated by the chronic waiting to which this population is subjected. During March, there were several manifestations of aggressions against the shelters by the local population because they were seen as “centers of infection”, the most representative case being that of Palenque, Chiapas.


Several organizations put pressure on the Ministry of Health (Secretaría de Salud) to release people in immigration detention. During March and April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) carried out a campaign in the migratory stations of Puebla and Tlaxcala, for the release of migrants who were detained and under the assumption of refugee status. Between March and May, groups of between 15 and 30 people were released. UNHCR approached the shelters that were still in operation to receive them. This generated fear and uncertainty in the shelter, as it was thought that an agglomeration could generate contagions, and also that the groups they received constituted a different population from the one they were serving: “for us it was a novelty to receive groups of Haitians or Cubans, because they had left the migratory stations” (Director of the shelter, interview, 2021).


The shelter faced a reduction in personnel, since a large part of the team was made up of volunteers: students stopped attending due to instructions from educational authorities, other volunteers because they were considered at risk due to their physical or medical condition, and the arrival of foreign personnel was suspended. The team was reduced from 15 to three people. This reduction was compounded by the overload of training.

The shelter had to make adjustments in its care process because it did not have the infrastructure, equipment or resources to modify the care protocols for hygiene, safety and prevention of contagion. During April and May, they worked to reinforce all prevention measures, and invested the few resources to establish modifications, such as putting a sink at the entrance and acquiring hygiene products.


From April to August, there were five cases of people requiring medical attention, because they had suffered accidents or were crossing Mexican territory with some chronic illness with severe crises, such as epilepsy, diabetes or asthma. The issue of health care became more complex “some hospitals in the region were becoming COVID hospitals. In addition to the fact that these hospitals were not receiving them, there was also an over demand in private hospitals” (Director of the shelter, interview, 2021).


There was a case of a migrant presented with asthma and diabetes that had not been treated from his country of origin. He was sent by shelter staff to a public hospital that did not have protocols to identify COVID-19 cases. This led to the leakage of information accusing the shelter of committing “recklessness” for sending a sick person on public transport. The closure of this hospital was announced, as it had to be disinfected due to the presence of the “sick” migrant. This did not happen, the migrant was treated in another hospital and later transferred to the shelter. Later, a group of neighbors reported that in this institution there were already positive cases of patients, and that people had even died inside the facilities, without this being true.


International organizations such as the UNHCR and the Red Cross financed the purchase of hygiene and health supplies. Although this had positive effects, it also implied some difficulty because part of the team had to go to the stores to buy the products with the risks that this entailed, in violation of the protocol that establishes that those who attend to the migrant population should avoid constantly going in and out.

The Mexican State strengthens the polarization and worsens the conditions for this population; it is the international organizations who have helped to alleviate the precarious conditions in the operation of humanitarian aid. The pandemic triggered an increase in hate speech, xenophobic practices and a deterioration of operating conditions. COVID-19 has subjected the Central American population in irregular migratory conditions to renewed structures of discrimination.




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About Mónica P. Toledo-González

Mónica P. Toledo-González

Doctor in Anthropology from CIESAS, Mexico. Professor at the Facultad de Ciencias para el Desarrollo Humano of the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala. Member of the National System of Researchers. She has been technical responsible for the project "Precarious Transits, Central American Migrants and their journey in the Central Mexican Highlands" (CONACYT 5687). Her lines of research are: Reproductive work (domestic and care), mobility, precarious jobs, families and vulnerability. Her latest works include: "Metaphors of displacement and disease: Precarious transits and corporality in Hondurans through central Mexico in times of COVID-19" (in press); “Living in (the) transit: Precariousness and Honduran migration in its journey through central-eastern Mexico” (in press), “The pulverize of the undesirables” and the coordination of the thematic number “Transits, Actors and Intersectionality” of the Diarios del Terruño Magazine (2021).

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