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Press Release

IRC launches Coronavirus response serving asylum seekers and vulnerable families at Mexico border

As Coronavirus cases surpass 5,000 in Mexico, the International Rescue Committee has launched, together with local authorities and civil society partners, a public health awareness and psychosocial support campaign for shelters at the Mexico-US border in Ciudad Juárez. 

The project will directly benefit 17 shelters hosting approximately 3,000 individuals and reach surrounding host communities -- indirectly benefiting an additional 10,000 people. 

The initiative includes sessions on the transmission of COVID-19, protective and preventive measures including the identification of at-risk groups, signs, and symptoms of COVID-19, where to access help and support, reinforcement of public health best practices, and the distribution of hygiene kits.

Over the past year, the safety, health, and security of asylum seekers have been put at risk in northern Mexico as US policies have forced over 60,000 to wait in Mexico under the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) for the outcome of their US hearings and subjected thousands more to “metering” lists that leave them waiting months in northern Mexico to present themselves to US authorities. Now as health risks are rising exponentially with Coronavirus, the International Rescue Committee is scaling up its programming to mitigate and respond to the virus in shelters across Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, supporting 13,000 asylum seekers and surrounding community members. 

International Rescue Committee’s Regional Director of Latin America, Meghan Lopez, said, “Along their journey, and again in Mexico, refugees and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable to the same exploitation, abuse and targeted violence that forced them to flee their homes in the first place. As they seek protection and safety, there is an overall lack of shelters: not even 10% are able to find space in formal shelters instead resorting to informal shelters of varying quality and safety. The sad reality is that vulnerable populations are seeking shelter to escape violence, only to be exposed to the new global vulnerability: COVID-19. Most shelters, especially informal shelters, are overcrowded, lack resources, have poor ventilation and due to communal living are ill-equipped to allow for the globally recognized measures to reduce COVD transmission. The spread of the coronavirus in shelters along the Mexico-US border is inevitable.”

Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that MPP violates US law, but authorities continue to place asylum seekers in this program as litigation continues. Shelters in Ciudad Juárez, like elsewhere along the northern Mexico border, have been operating well over their normal capacity due to MPP and metering practices, causing severely overcrowded conditions.  Without immediately implementing measures recommended by public health experts to mitigate the further spread of the outbreak, both asylum seekers, as well as the host community, are at exponential risk.   

Olga Byrne, the Director of U.S. Immigration for the International Rescue Committee, said, “Implementation of COVID-19 mitigation efforts at shelters that are already severely lacking in resources and highly overcrowded is urgently needed to slow the spread of the virus along the northern Mexico border. But the policies that have forced people to wait in Mexico in the first place, leading to highly overcrowded shelters, violate U.S. and international law. The vast majority of asylum seekers stuck in MPP have families waiting to receive them in the US. At a time when we are seeing public officials calling for the release of eligible individuals from crowded detention centers, it is absurd to leave asylum seekers effectively confined in under-resourced shelters along the Mexico border.”

The International Rescue Committee has been working for a year with local partners to ensure women and LGBTQ+ populations in Ciudad Juarez are supported with the delivery of individual and group counseling. Through partnerships with on-the-ground legal partners, IRC has also assisted vulnerable families and individuals stuck in Mexico to file applications for humanitarian parole based on urgent health risks. The IRC is now responding to the inevitable spread of coronavirus in 17 shelters in Ciudad Juárez. The response will benefit 13,000 people across the Mexico side of the border. 

In February, the IRC conducted an assessment across five shelters to understand the risks that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19, including insufficient access to running water, inadequate availability of insulation or heating, limited access to private toilets, poor hygiene infrastructure, no availability of space for self-isolation, absence of dedicated health personnel, inadequate safekeeping of medicine (where available) and overcrowded dormitories and common areas. 

The International Rescue Committee, together with local authorities and civil society partners, is launching a “hygiene promotion and protection project” for shelters at the Mexico-US border in Ciudad Juárez. The project will support 17 shelters and reach 3,000 individuals and surrounding host communities -- indirectly benefiting an additional 10,000 people. With the support of local health authorities, the program includes: 

  • Sessions on the transmission of COVID-19, 
  • Protective and preventive measures, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, 
  • Where to access help and support, reinforcement of public health best practices,
  • Information about any changes in services,  
  • Trained volunteers from the shelters will support IRC with the dissemination of information related to COVID-19, including the distribution of flyers, using loudspeakers or working with community leaders or networks of churches.

Last month, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) launched an appeal to raise US $30 million to combat coronavirus around the world. To donate to the IRC, visit: www.rescue.org/donate.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.