Central American refugees hope to call Mexico City home
As thousands flee violent street gangs for safety in Mexico, UN Refugee Chief Filippo Grandi highlights important new efforts to strengthen integration.
MEXICO CITY – Offering a menu based around local dishes, the busy diner is like many others in the sprawling Mexican capital. What is unique are the staff.
The cooks, waiters and waitresses have all fled violence and persecution for safety in Mexico, and are getting a chance to start over at the restaurant.
“It was opened specifically for us refugees to have good jobs and to get ahead,” says Patricia,* who escaped gang violence in her native El Salvador two years ago with her children. “It's felt really great to have this place.”
She is among a soaring number of refugees fleeing insecurity in the north of Central America, who are getting a shot at a new life in Mexico.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working with government institutions and local partners such as Cafemin and Casa Refugiados to integrate hundreds of refugees like Patricia who are seeking safety here each year.
“It was opened specifically for us refugees to have good jobs and to get ahead.”
The restaurant pays her more than a previous survival job, and, crucially, gives her more flexibility to care for her daughter and two sons who escaped a street gang back home that was forcing them to carry drugs.
Mexico is receiving a growing number of men, women and children fleeing crime and insecurity in the northern region of Central America. In 2016, Mexico recognized 3,078 as refugees, a 206 per cent increase from the previous year, and the number of asylum applications keeps growing. The vast majority of the new arrivals are Central Americans and, in 2017, Venezuelans.
While UNHCR continues to improve financial support, legal aid, and safe housing for asylum seekers, the long-term stability of refugees remains a concern.
A recent study conducted by UNHCR and the International Labour Organization found that nearly half – 47 per cent – of those interviewed said their job in Mexico represented a step down from their previous employment at home, raising concerns that refugee skills are being wasted.
In addition, 90 per cent of those interviewed said they did not have a contract with their employer. This was the case with the first waitressing job Patricia found after she abandoned El Salvador in 2015.
“They were paying me 400 pesos (US$22) per week – we couldn’t live on that,” she says.
Finding secure work has also been an issue for Beatriz since she abandoned Guatemala four years ago, with her three children and three grandchildren. Last year, they were all granted refugee status. UNHCR partner Casa Refugiados helped her find work at a call centre where she is better paid and feels more comfortable.
“We have received a lot of support from Casa Refugiados and Comar (Mexico’s Refugee Agency) … and we are very appreciative,” she says.
For decades, Mexico City has been a place where people from many different international communities have been able to make their lives, shelter their families and take the first steps in the integration process.
“This collaboration is an important example of solidarity as a value underpinning the policies of this global city.”
During a recent visit, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi signed a compact with Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, including refugees in a range of social programmes run by the city. It also provides those forced to flee their countries with job options, training and economic support.
“This collaboration is an important example of solidarity as a value underpinning the policies of this global city,” Grandi said at the signing ceremony. He praised efforts by the authorities to develop lasting solutions for refugees, principally through local integration.
While in Mexico as part of a 10-day, fact-finding tour of the region, Grandi met with President Enrique Peña Nieto to discuss strengthening Mexico’s refugee protection system and supporting regional responses to forced displacement.
The High Commissioner stressed that, through the adoption of progressive policies, Mexican institutions and civil society groups can inspire other countries in the region to enact concrete measures to support refugees.
In this spirit of responsibility sharing, UNHCR is working with governments in the region to develop a Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS is the Spanish acronym). Based on last year’s New York Declaration, it is a step towards the Global Compact on Refugees to be agreed upon in 2018. It seeks to address the full scope of forced displacement, from its root causes, strengthening asylum systems and working on durable solutions.
So far Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have joined the regional initiative.
*Refugees’ names have been changed for protection reasons.