Crowd waits to cross border from Haiti to Dominican Republic Photo: AFP via Getty Images

North America: Refugee and migrant rights must be top priority of ‘Three Amigos’ summit

The rights of refugees and migrants must be a top priority during the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, said Amnesty International on Monday. President Biden, President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau must stop implementing inhuman shared migration policies and replace them with polices that are in accordance with international human rights standards.

“As the number of people fleeing violence and persecution continues to grow, protecting the human rights of migrants and refugees is of critical importance. Instead of increasing barriers for people on the move and subjecting them to further hardship, President Biden, President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau must adopt measures to protect their rights in North America and abroad,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The dangerous circumstances facing people fleeing persecution, who are often forced by violence, economic hardship and climate change to journey across borders, continue to be one of North America’s most serious human rights concerns. Large numbers of migrants and refugees from across the world continue to make perilous journeys through Mexico in an attempt to cross over into the United States and, in some cases, continue onto Canada. At the same time, structural failings leave many refugees and migrants unprotected in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

North American governments are implementing shared immigration policies aimed at deterring migration. These measures include militarization, externalization of borders, generalized use of immigration detention, expedited removals, and criminalization of migrant rights defenders. Notably, the United States and Mexico jointly implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), under which asylum seekers were left stranded in camps along the US-Mexico border where they were in extraordinary danger and potentially pushed further into harm’s way. Likewise, since the implementation of Title 42 in March 2020, nearly 2.5 million asylum seekers from Central America, Haiti and, more recently, from Venezuela, have been expelled from the United States to Mexico without the opportunity to effectively claim asylum.

‘North American governments should shift from inhuman shared immigration policies in the region to policies of shared responsibility grounded in human rights and the protection of migrants and refugees.’

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director, Amnesty International

Both immigration policies are close to an end. Following a Supreme Court decision in May 2022, the Biden administration ended the MPP program. As for Title 42, the lifting of the policy is on hold pending a judicial decision. However, the United States is implementing new policies to deter migration, including transit bans, criminalization of asylum seekers, and additional externalization of asylum procedures to Mexico.

“The US government must immediately rescind Title 42 and avoid implementing similar shared migration policies that deny the rights of migrants and refugees, including the right to access territory and to seek and receive asylum,” added Erika Guevara-Rosas. “North American governments should shift from inhuman shared immigration policies in the region to policies of shared responsibility grounded in human rights and the protection of migrants and refugees.”

Another inhumane shared policy is the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the United States. The agreement bars most people arriving at Canada’s official land ports of entry via the United States from seeking refugee protection in Canada, and vice versa. As a result, vulnerable refugees attempt dangerous border crossings into remote and rural areas of Canada and the United States. Those returned to the United States from Canada under the agreement, especially people facing gender-based persecution, may be unfairly denied protection in the United States and returned to danger in their country of origin. Amnesty International, together with other human rights organizations and individual applicants, appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada in October to challenge the constitutionality of the STCA. Reports indicate that the Canadian and US governments are currently working to expand the STCA, despite awaiting a decision from Canada’s highest court on the constitutionality of the agreement.

Amnesty International also calls on US, Canadian and Mexican officials to end policies of systemic immigration detention that violate international standards. Compassionate, tailored, and community-based supports should be used rather than punitive detention; jails and jail-like facilities should never be used and children should never be detained. That is clearly not the practice in North America.

As an example, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the serious human rights violations that migrants and refugees face in immigration detention in Canada. While not held on criminal charges or convictions, many experience some of the country’s most restrictive confinement conditions, including maximum-security provincial jails, solitary confinement, and indefinite detention. Black and other racialized people appear to be incarcerated for longer periods of time and in provincial jails, while people with psychosocial disabilities are subjected to disproportionately coercive treatment. Another example is the treatment that Haitian refugees and migrants have received both in Mexico and the United States. While on the southern border of Mexico they have been denied asylum and basic services, at the US-Mexico border they have faced equally harsh conditions. Those who entered the United States have been detained and deported back to Haiti under conditions that reveal systemic anti-Black discrimination and ill-treatment that in some cases may amount to race-based torture.  

The implementation of restrictive policies has left migrants and refugees with no choice but to take more dangerous journeys. This year was the deadliest for the US-Mexican border, where more than 850 migrants lost their lives, while on the US-Canada border a migrant family of four froze to death while attempting to cross into the United States. Likewise, the Missing Migrants Project estimates that there are 7,008 disappeared migrants in the Americas, an increase of 55% over the last 5 years.

“Migrants crossing Mexico are often victims of numerous violations of human rights and abuses, such as kidnappings, killings, robbery, and extortion, among others. Women frequently experience gender-based violence, including sexual violence. Access to justice, medical and psychological support are limited, and violations repeatedly remain in impunity. In all three countries, women migrants and refugees face adverse situations on arrival that require gender-responsive supports and services,” said Guevara-Rosas.

As Canada, Mexico and the United States meet to discuss a comprehensive North American agenda, they must end these policies of deterrence, exclusion, and cruelty, and commit to work together to protect the rights of refugees and migrants throughout North America. As a crucial first step, President Biden, President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau must each definitively commit to ending policies that block access to asylum and ensure the rights of all individuals to seek safety.