Migrants Traveling Through Mexico to the U.S. Face High Violence Risk

By Linda Carroll

August 24, 2019

(Reuters Health) - Nearly one third of migrants traveling through Mexico to the U.S. experience physical, psychological and/or sexual violence during their journey, a new study finds.

Especially at risk are women and those who are transgender, transvestite and transsexual, according to the report published August 21 in the journal PLoS ONE.

"Migrants are subjected to a high level of violence while in transit to the U.S.," write the authors, led by Rene Leyva-Flores, a researcher with the National Institute of Public Health in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

"Those traveling under irregular migratory conditions are targets of even greater violence, a condition exacerbated by gender inequality. Migrants transiting through Mexico from Central American and other countries undergo violence more frequently than do Mexican migrants. Protective measures are urgently needed to ensure the human rights of these populations," the study team writes.

The authors did not respond to a request for comment.

To take a closer look at the level and types of violence that can occur on the path to the U.S., the researchers surveyed 12,023 migrants who stayed at one of five shelters in Mexico between 2009 and 2015. Along with surveys, 58 of the migrants participated in longer, in-depth interviews.

Overall, 29.4% of the migrants said they had suffered some sort of violence along the way, with nearly 23.7% experiencing physical violence, 19.5% experiencing psychological violence and 1.6% reporting sexual violence.

Physical violence included beatings, thefts, extortions and kidnappings; psychological violence included humiliation, threats, rejection and insults; and sexual violence included rape, sex in exchange for goods, money, protection, transportation or food.

Migrants who were female, transsexual, transgender or transvestite were more likely than others to experience violence.

Migrants often experienced rejection and ridicule. A 33-year-old man from El Salvador told the researchers, "The local people treat us the same. It doesn't matter if you are from Honduras or Nicaragua, because we are wetbacks. We don't have documents to migrate."

A 33-year-old Salvadoran woman reported: "A person raped me right after I got on the train. It was one of those workers that are there on the railway. He grabbed me by the hair, got me off the train and put me in his car."

A 22-year-old gay man from Guatemala described what it took to survive: "If we have to get things with sex then we have to do it. Maybe you don't want to but they take advantage of it. You do everything on this trip. You have to drink water from puddles from watering holes where cows have been. It's what you do to survive."

The new report shines a light on the suffering of those fleeing north, said Terry McGovern, professor and chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and director of the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

McGovern says she's not surprised by the numbers. "I'm actually happy to see the attention given to (LGBT) migrants," she said. "You constantly hear anecdotal stories about horrible things happening to transgender people who are migrating. I'm glad to see this very well documented."

The article also "does a really good job documenting how this is happening," McGovern said. "And it humanizes the migrants. Reading about women and girls having to trade sex for food or to take care of their kids I think really captures the situation. It gives us a snapshot of what is going on."

The study turns on its head the image many have of "relatively happy people in a caravan," said Dr. Albert Wu, an internist and professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. "Rather, these people are very likely to experience violence as they travel to seek asylum in the U.S. It's a really perilous journey and we shouldn't take what they are doing lightly."

Current policy changes may be making things worse, Wu said. "I think the U.S. needs to accept responsibility for increasing the harm to these innocent people," he said. "A really humane society would take into account the health impact of its policies rather than the political messages they might send."

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/2ZmBY50

PLoS ONE 2019.