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Press Release

New IRC survey finds services on U.S.-Mexico border overwhelmed, women and children at risk

IRC conducted a survey representing around 600 people to understand the needs of people in towns on the border.

Last updated 
  • New survey from Mexico-U.S. border finds needs are overwhelming available services
  • Shelter designed to host 100 people for a maximum of three days now hosting 300 people for well over a month
  • Families list food, money and medicine as their biggest needs
  • People reported high risk of trafficking and sexual violence, as well as few services for survivors
  • Migrants rely on social media, personal connections and shelters in order to find information about services and legal rights

The U.S. and Mexico border spans almost 2,000 miles. All along the border, but particularly in the east, organized crime controls the majority of border areas, which are also plagued by crime and violence including trafficking of drugs, weapons, money, and people.

Recent changes in U.S. policy, including metering and “Remain in Mexico,” have resulted in long waiting times to present at a port-of-entry along the border, which are most extreme in Tijuana. This, coupled with the insecurity in the east, is resulting in a ‘funneling’ of more mixed-migrants into the central areas such as the towns of Nogales and Juarez.

On the U.S. side, the mayor of Yuma declared a state of emergency this week to seek federal support in managing the increasing number of asylum-seekers. Contrary to the situation in Yuma, the IRC Staff in Phoenix and Tucson report a decrease in daily arrivals in their respective areas; despite the IRC’s response alone had reached 10,000 asylum-seeking children and parents since last summer. The policy decision to reroute traffic to cities with lesser capacity to support asylum-seekers speak further to the failure of the Trump Administration to effectively and humanely respond to people seeking asylum at its borders.

In March, IRC conducted an assessment in Nogales, Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo, which surveyed over 200 families, representing 569 people, as well as six focus groups and 21 further interviews, with the objective of understanding the needs of people in transit. Due to safety concerns for participants all interviews were conducted inside shelters, thereby excluding those staying elsewhere which make up around half of the population of concern. Countries of origin included Mexico (30% of respondents), Honduras (25%), Cuba (24%), Nicaragua (5%), Guatemala (5%) and El Salvador (4%.) The majority of Mexicans surveyed were from Guerrero (66%), no other state made up more than 7%.

Bob Kitchen, Vice President for Emergencies at International Rescue Committee, said “It’s clear from our findings that services in towns on the U.S.-Mexico border are simply overwhelmed by the need. Shelters are often operating at three times their capacity, and supporting people for well over a month, when they were designed to house people for just three days.

“Unlike other assessments, our team found that people often reported concerns around their physical safety and fear of gangs and violence, demonstrating the volatile nature of this situation.”

Migrant and refugee women particularly vulnerable in Mexico

The assessment found evidence that sexual violence against migrant women and girls is common.

Kitchen said: “Women and girls in particular are at risk from sexual violence in Mexico. Criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking and sexual exploitation often take advantage of the extreme vulnerability of female migrants and refugees, making them particular targets for abuse.

“Each female focus group mentioned kidnap and rape as the highest safety risks for women. The lack of services identified by the assessment makes it highly likely that many women are experiencing highly traumatic experiences, and have no support to overcome them.”

The assessment found that a number of shelters that were visited either did not have a psychologist visit on a regular basis, or that no specific psychological services to help people process trauma and abuse such as case management were available.

Physical safely was also noted as a concern. 18% of female respondents said there were safety or privacy concerns for women who wanted to use restroom facilities. This is unfortunately expected, as long lines to use the restroom were noted at several facilities, in an extreme case one shelter hosting 300 people has only two bathrooms.

Gang violence, sexual abuse against children cited as top risks

Kitchen noted, “Children are reported to be at risk from kidnapping, gang recruitment and violence, sexual abuse as well as physical violence, in particular when they are in transit or in the border town.

“Based on IRC’s work around the world we know that these traumatic experiences can lead to toxic stress, which can have a lifelong impact on children. It’s vital that services are stepped up to support these young people before it’s too late.”

When asked where these risks are most likely to occur, two-thirds of respondents were most concerned about the time in transit followed by here in the border town (53%), then back home (41%), and lastly while presenting to US authorities at the U.S. border (37%).

As the number of unaccompanied children (UAC) visible in the Mexican towns IRC visited do not reflect the high numbers of UAC encountered by U.S. authorities across the border, IRC’s assessment considers it is possible that either UAC are taking different routes, possibly with coyotes, or are a hidden population on the Mexico side for fear of being put in state care (Mexican children) or deported (non-Mexican children.)

Greatest Needs

Kitchen said: “Our survey found that people report being most in need of food, money and medicine. Although the shelters they were staying in did provide food, medicine, clothes and shelter. The fact that they still reported needing these things demonstrates that there simply aren’t enough resources to meet demand, or that elsewhere on their often long and arduous journey there was a lack of services. While access to healthcare varied across survey locations, no reproductive health services were available and two focus groups noted xenophobia or denial of services by Mexican health providers.”

The survey also found an unusually high number of families who prioritized non-physical needs such as safety (20%) and protection from violence/gangs (19%), which does not often rank so highly in similar assessments around the world.

For those who noted money was a priority need, they were asked what they would spend the money on. Most prioritized food, followed by hygiene items and clothing/shoes. Similarly, when asked about their needs, four of six focus groups focused on goods in kind or vouchers for items such as: diapers, baby formula, sanitary pads, shoes, clothing, food, and blankets. Seventy percent of families surveyed noted that they had access to potable water where they were staying, with almost a third noting that they were buying water.

Access to information

Overall, there was frustration with information gaps. Per survey respondents, the most common information sources while in Mexico have been migrants en route and Facebook (33% each), WhatsApp (29%), family or friends and shelters (22% each).

The type of information that was reported as most needed, yet hardest to access was information on the US asylum process (74%), followed by information on approaching the US border (20%), and information on legal services (14%). Similar trends were found in terms of information that was received, and was considered ‘most valuable.’

Kitchen concludes: “Whilst local organizations and civil society are working around the clock to meet the needs of people living in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border, more funding and support is needed to protect the most vulnerable and keep people safe as they seek a safer, better life for their family.”

Assessment Methodology

The assessment included: (1) 21 stakeholder interviews focused largely on access to services for the population of concern (defined above), (2) Six focus group discussions with men and women staying in shelters in border towns, and (3) a family survey with 202 families (representing 569 individuals) using a stratified convenience sample. The assessment covered three locations: Nogales, Sonora; Juarez, Chihuahua; Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Informed consent was received before all interviews.

Due to the serious protection concerns for participants in this assessment, all focus groups and surveys occurred within a secure service provision location. This means that we were only able to capture the views of people who are able to access these locations. By default, this largely excludes the following groups:

  • People working with a coyote (by choice) who is providing shelter and services
  • People with enough money to stay in a hotel, or who have community connections
  • People who have been denied access to services for any reason, real or perceived
  • People who have been kidnapped or trafficked (against their will) and are residing in ‘safe houses’

To download the full assessment click here.

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 28 offices across the U.S. 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.