Human rights of migrants: Strengthening civil society in Central America and Mexico

HURIDOCS' accompaniment to civil society organisations working with the human rights of migrants

By Salva Lacruz on

The worsening crisis of forced displacement in Latin America and the violation of migrants’ rights are driving an intensive response from civil society to carry out its human rights defence work. Human rights defenders face major challenges in addressing and documenting this crisis and are reliant on appropriate documentation technology for secure and well-organised information management. HURIDOCS accompanies various organisations that defend the rights of migrants and refugees in Central America and Mexico to better respond to the situation by strengthening their technical and methodological processes.

The context of forced displacement in the region

Most Latin American countries are afflicted by stories of exile, throughout their past or as a reality in the present day. Since the mid-20th century, military governments have been imposing on South American countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, while in Central America, civil wars broke out in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua leading to the first exodus of populations in need of international protection on the continent. Since then, the prevalence of social injustices, environmental emergencies, and a marked escalation in political violence have contributed to an increase in forced migration.

Currently, we find record numbers of migrants and refugees crossing Central America and Mexico from South America, the Caribbean and extra continental countries. This includes countries of origin, such as Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti, as well as transit countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico, forcing communities to flee to North America and Europe to save their lives. According to estimates from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the region has seen 21.4 million people in situations of forced displacement in 2022. In Venezuela alone, 7.24 million refugees and migrants have left the country.

A migrant caravan in June 2022, with approximately 5,000 displaced persons in the “coast corridor” on the border of Mexico and Guatemala.
Source: Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova.

The region is facing an unprecedented crisis of forced displacement, which is aggravated by the lack of response by states in the region that neglect the protection needs of migrants and refugees. One example of such negligence is the Mexican government, which brutally represses migratory flows. This results in an increase in the number of people who are detained and deported to their countries of origin, denying them access to refugee status recognition procedures.

During 2023, the United States (US) carried out nearly 3.4 million immigration detentions, most of them (2.4 million) on its southern border. The US managed to deport 380,000 people who were denied protection, 70% of them to Latin American countries. In turn, and in support of this policy, Mexico broke its own records by carrying out 680,000 detentions and 280,000 deportations, 95% of them to Latin American countries.

This scenario forces hundreds of thousands of people annually to take clandestine routes, cross borders, and travel through risky territories. These people encounter serious threats including repression by immigration authorities and armed forces, as well as exploitation, trafficking, smuggling and extortion by criminal groups who benefit financially from those who are desperate to flee. This results in severe human rights violations with devastating effects on those who are seeking a better life. It is very difficult to monitor violations directly related to immigration, detention and deportation practices by states, therefore making it impossible to measure indirect violations such as exploitation, extortion, kidnapping, disappearance or murder committed by organised criminal factions. Not only the right to freedom of movement and the right to asylum are in crisis in the region, but the whole set of civil and social rights does not apply to people in the context of human mobility in Latin America.

The response of civil society

Organisations and social movements called for protests against the Mexican immigration authority in March 2023, after the massacre of 41 people in a fire at the Ciudad Juárez detention centre.
Source: El Rebozo – Cuidado de la vida y los territories

This reality has pushed the mature civil society in the region to organise its actions towards defending the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Mexico is a hub for displaced persons as it is either the country of origin, country of transit or country of destination.  Over many decades, the people of Mexico have offered various forms of solidarity and hospitality to migrant and refugee communities. The entire Mexican territory constitutes a vertical border that prevents the crossing of the southern border to North America, and as a result, is sown with shelters, human rights centres and collectives that offer support to migrants and refugees. This includes accompaniment with legal, psychosocial and humanitarian services to activities that include monitoring, reporting and political advocacy. The increased movement of people to Central America is one of the main reasons why organisations are defending the rights of migrants and refugees in almost every Latin American country.

This social network that supports and defends the human rights of those who are displaced, is frequently overwhelmed by the reality on the ground. Migrant shelters in Guatemala and Mexico have become de facto refugee camps. These shelters are overflowing with people seeking asylum and humanitarian aid units are unable to cover the needs of those seeking shelter. Legal teams are inundated and cannot address all the injustices committed concerning asylum procedures or immigration regularisation. Faced with this dilemma, more and more civil society organisations understand that they need to ramp up their response to these challenges. To do so they are required to strengthen their documentation and information management processes, equip themselves with solid methodologies and appropriate tools, and build the capacity of their teams.

Source: CDH FrayMa

HURIDOCS’ accompaniment to civil society organisations working with the human rights of migrants

In 2021, HURIDOCS reorganised its Programmes team to provide focused support work per region. In Latin America, after a series of consultations with human rights defenders, members of civil society and experts in various areas of human rights, it was decided to focus our efforts on organisations dedicated to specific themes: defending the rights of migrants and refugees, protection of human rights defenders, prevention of torture, and the search for disappeared persons.

Since then, we have worked with various organisations in the area of human mobility, mainly in Mexico and Central America. Through this collaboration, we have learned valuable lessons and insights from our partners. This includes how to manage cases of displaced persons and victims of human rights violations, and how to monitor the migratory context for the purposes of advocacy. By understanding the realities of our partners we can offer them documentation technology and information management solutions that are tailored to their needs and political contexts.

To date, these efforts have materialised in the implementation of documentation processes and tools with Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA) on the northern border of Mexico, Un Mundo Una Nación – Albergue La Sagrada Familia in the centre of Mexico, and Voces Mesoamericanas, Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías and La 72 – Hogar Refugio para Personas Migrantes on the southern border with Guatemala. Also in Mexico, the Documentation Network of Migrant Defence Organisations (REDODEM), brings together 24 organisations throughout the country. The opportunity to become more active in the region is a result of our collaboration with the Red Franciscana para Migrantes (RFM), which includes organisations from Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.

These organisations reflect the rich diversity of the solidarity movement with migrants in the region and offer a rich and varied panorama to address the challenges associated with forced displacement. The migration crisis is characterised by extreme vulnerability and victims are subjected to multiple and grave human rights violations. To address the status quo and seek appropriate remedies, civil society organisations urgently need support to effectively manage the information that is collected and processed by their teams.

HURIDOCS uses flexible approaches to project management to suit the requirements and profile of each of our partners.  As a first step, we work with our partners to identify the scope of the project and how it will address the specific problem they want to solve. Secondly, HURIDOCS conducts a thorough and in-depth needs analysis to determine the current information workflow and develop a new documentation model. The next step is to implement, test and refine a bespoke database system that is informed by the previous phases. Lastly, and very importantly, teams are trained to use the system to securely document and manage information related to the specific use case.

Accompaniment process for organisations working with refugees and migrants.

The aforementioned process and implementation of a new documentation system require effort and commitment from both HURIDOCS and its partners, but we believe it is worth it. By going through such a rigorous process, organisations are equipped with effective processes and secure tools to support and coordinate their daily activities. A bespoke system supports their work of accompanying victims, monitoring the evolving context in which they operate, collecting data for analysis and decision-making, and preparing materials for communication and political advocacy. Our main focus at HURIDOCS is to support and strengthen our partner’s documentation model, but we have realised that the process is more enriching when we collaborate on strategic reflections and reorientation of intervention or victim defence models.

The case of Voces Mesoamericanas in Mexico

Voces Mesoamericanas – Acción con Pueblos Migrantes is a civil association that has been working since 2011 in Chiapas, Mexico, to promote “Buen Vivir y el Buen Migrar” (loosely translated as ‘good living and good migrating’) among the Indigenous communities of the Altos region. These communities have historically been violated and impoverished, and as a result have migrated to the Yucatan Peninsula, northern Mexico, and the United States. Among other actions, the work of Voces Mesoamericanas focuses on defending the rights of people who are already displaced, in areas as diverse as decent work, immigration detention, and the search for disappeared migrants.

To streamline its work of following up on cases, monitoring the evolving context and preserving data securely and sustainably, Voces Mesoamericanas incorporated documentation tools developed by HURIDOCS into its accompaniment model. 

Aldo Ledón, Director of Voces Mesoamericanas:

“For little over two years, we have been working with HURIDOCS to incorporate Uwazi into our case documentation processes. Our organisation works mainly with human rights violations that affect people in human mobility.

“I believe that one of the main advantages of Uwazi is the ability to bring structure to our documentation process, and to have information that is mainly being used, visible and generates statistics.

“Another very interesting aspect of Uwazi is the interactive maps that are generated. This not only gives a different reading to better understand statistics and numbers, but it allows us to reflect and map the impacts of violence in different territories and with different dynamics, from a geopolitical level.

We also consider that this system, with the help of the HURIDOCS team, has allowed us to improve and professionalise our documentation processes, while aspiring to realise justice in Mexico.

We greatly appreciate the timely accompaniment provided by HURIDOCS, coupled with a very pedagogical and close level of training and accompaniment, adapting to the diverse contexts that we have in the state of Chiapas, and its culture, which has resulted in a relatively simple appropriation of this program.

We have some reports in the pipeline that we want to generate on the migratory dynamics in our region, human rights violations and the processes of access to justice. So we hope that this programme will give us these results. It has undoubtedly already given us the logic of being able to order our information as well as protect and secure  it due to the sensitive issues and the complicated work involved in the defence of human rights in Mexico, always with the support of HURIDOCS and all the people who make up this organisation, and also with a system that is user-friendly, practical and functional for civil organisations.”

Simplified data model for the case management system for human rights violations for Voces Mesoamericanas.

Looking ahead: shaping human rights documentation in a fast-evolving landscape

Social organisations, international bodies, states and their multilateral organs all agree that the crisis of forced displacement will worsen in the coming years. This is a result of structural causes such as criminality, political violence, corruption, impunity, gender-based violence, and the impoverishment of rural and urban working classes that do not show signs of abating but are also giving rise to new challenges: countries sliding into authoritarianism, embracing neoliberal economic models, transnational organised criminality, and irreversible climate change.

The response to migrants and refugees by transit and destination states is clear: to tighten migration management policies and channels for access to international protection and increase economic, technological, and human resources allocated to border control and migration repression. This combination leads to an unprecedented human rights crisis, with increasingly severe and frequent humanitarian emergencies.

The determination of people to save their own lives and those of their families, and to cross any necessary borders to do so, will not cease, just as the conviction of organised civil society that welcomes and accompanies this human exodus will not wane. The solidarity and hospitality movement towards migrants and refugees recognises that, to continue responding in this context, it needs to strengthen itself in various technical and political aspects; one of them being the adoption of effective human rights documentation processes.

At HURIDOCS, we aspire to defend the human rights of migrants and refugees, contributing our work and support to the organisations and collectives that face this endless task every day, both in Latin America and in other regions of the world equally affected by injustice.

Do you need to shape and share a collection of human rights information? HURIDOCS would love to help. Get in touch!

This article is available in Spanish.

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