News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration Violence & Abuse

Washington University researchers collaborate with Mexican asylum authorities to support survivors of gender-based violence applying for refugee protection

For decades, Mexico has been a country of transit for migrants and refugees seeking safety and opportunity in the United States. As the U.S. closes its southern border and crises in Central America continue unabated, however, more and more people are leaving home and staying in Mexico. And many of them are asking Mexico for refugee protection.

Five years ago, an estimated 265,000 people left Central America and traveled north. In 2019, this estimate doubled to more than 500,000. Deportations from Mexico have increased correspondingly: Mexico’s National Institute for Migration deported over 140,000 people in 2019, compared with 80,000 in 2013. And the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR), the national refugee agency that processes asylum applications and confers refugee protection, is straining to keep up with the 70,000 plus applications it received in 2019 – up from only 2,000 a mere five years ago.

Source: Statistics from multiple government agencies in Mexico (Unidad de Política Migratoria, Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda para Refugiados, Instituto Nacional de Migración)

As more people seek protection in Mexico, the asylum authorities must contend with complex and traumatizing stories of persecution from an ever-growing pool of asylum applicants. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) can present one of the more challenging aspects of a refugee claim. With gender-motivated killings on the rise in Central America and LGBTQI individuals increasingly targets of discriminatory violence, COMAR is seeing more cases where applicants are fleeing SGBV.

Handling difficult, highly stigmatized forms of harm such as SGBV during the refugee application process is challenging for any asylum agency. In Mexico, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and COMAR recognize this challenge and are working to strengthen their response. As part of this effort, they invited researchers from WashU’s new Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration to dialogue with COMAR officials on questions of SGBV and refugee protection. During the past three years, Center Director Kim Thuy Seelinger and researcher Julia Uyttewaal have worked with UNHCR, COMAR, and other service providers in Mexico on improving approaches to SGBV disclosure among migrants and refugees, as well as enabling access to refugee protection for survivors of intimate partner violence.

On February 28 and March 2, over 70 COMAR officials from delegations in Acayucan, Mexico City, Monterrey, Palenque, Tapachula, Tenosique, and Tijuana gathered for a full day to discuss best practices for approaching SGBV at different stages of the asylum application process. Each of these stages (registration, vulnerability screenings, interviews) is an opportunity for asylum officers to detect an applicant’s potential experience of SGBV and offer subsequent referral, support, and protection. As such, Seelinger and Uyttewaal facilitated conversations on how to create a safe, confidential space for possible disclosure at each stage, including how to approach direct or indirect questioning about violence where appropriate. Participants also explored strategies for responding to disclosure in a survivor-centered manner.

Especially for the asylum office in Tapachula, which sits on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and sees the most asylum seekers of any office in Mexico, participants emphasized the importance of coordinating their approach to SGBV throughout the stages of the asylum application process. With limited resources and an ever-growing caseload, adjudicating officers have a better chance of effectively analyzing refugee claims and reducing the risk of re-traumatization if protection concerns such as SGBV are identified and responded to early on. Coordinated approaches and responses to SGBV throughout the asylum application process are key to protecting survivors, providing support, and deciding on refugee claims in an efficient, trauma-informed manner.

The refugee landscape in Mexico can change quickly and unpredictably, especially now as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, strengthening response to SGBV survivors remains a priority for both the UNHCR and COMAR. The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration will continue supporting their efforts in Mexico by deploying its transdisciplinary approaches to research, tool development, and training where requested.