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UNHCR moves closer to asylum seekers in southern Mexico

UNHCR moves closer to asylum seekers in southern Mexico

The UN refugee agency has relocated its office in Chiapas state, moving closer to a busy border crossing point with Guatemala, where it will be in a better position to assist asylum seekers in the south.
6 May 2003

CHIAPAS, Mexico, May 6 (UNHCR) - In an effort to better assist asylum seekers in southern Mexico, in close co-ordination with the government, the UN refugee agency has moved its office in Chiapas state closer to a major border crossing point with Guatemala.

In late April, UNHCR relocated its office within the southern Chiapas state, from Comitán to Tapachula city - the busiest crossing point along the southern border between Mexico and Guatemala, and one of the most important migration routes towards the United States. The Mexican Commission of Aid to Refugees has also established an office in Tapachula.

UNHCR's presence at this border crossing is especially pertinent now, given the increased border security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. In 2001 alone, an estimated 1.3 million foreigners entered Mexico legally through its southern border, according to the National Institute of Migration. It is difficult to estimate the number of undocumented arrivals. However, the magnitude of the migratory movement is evident in the fact that some 150,000 undocumented migrants are returned to their countries in Central America from Tapachula every year under the so-called "safe and orderly programme of return" implemented by the government.

While only a small percentage of these people may be refugees or asylum seekers, UNHCR believes that it is imperative to set up a protection network to identify, channel and assist people fleeing persecution.

"Migration movements in this region of the world are significant," explained Mérida Morales-O'Donnell, UNHCR's Regional Representative in Mexico. "Our office co-operates with the government in preserving the right to asylum of all asylum seekers, including those travelling among groups of undocumented migrants."

From the new office in Tapachula, UNHCR's three staff members will focus on providing technical advice and support to the government to ensure that asylum applications are processed. The agency will also help support the Mexican Commission of Aid to Refugees, the National Migration Institute, and non-governmental organisations in assisting asylum seekers while their claims are being processed by the government.

The decision to move UNHCR's office in Chiapas state comes 21 years after the mass arrival of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico. In 1982, the refugee agency set up an office in Mexico City, followed by another in Chiapas later that year. In 1984, some 18,000 Guatemalan refugees were transferred to the south-eastern states of Campeche and Quintana Roo for security reasons, and UNHCR opened offices in those two states to assist them.

In 1996, the Mexican government allowed for the naturalisation of Guatemalan refugees in Campeche and Quintana Roo, extending the option to those in Chiapas state two years later. The naturalisation process is expected to be completed at the end of 2004.