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Death of Ugandan shows risks for African asylum seekers in Mexico

‘Her death was very preventable.’

Jamillah Nabunjo's companions cross from Ciudad Juárez into the US city of El Paso for processing by border officials. Anna-Catherine Brigida/TNH
Jamillah Nabunjo's companions cross from Ciudad Juárez into the US city of El Paso for processing by border officials.

The fate of a Ugandan woman who died in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in September may be an early warning sign of the risks a burgeoning number of African migrants face as they seek asylum at the southern US border.

Jamillah Nabunjo, 33, had fallen into a coma at Hospital General Ciudad Juárez by the time her name rose to the top of the waiting list for a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) interview. The story of her subsequent death was recounted by CLINIC, a legal aid organisation assisting asylum seekers at the border, and by two of Nabunjo’s fellow travellers from Uganda and Cameroon, who were interviewed by The New Humanitarian in Juárez.

Her companions questioned whether Nabunjo’s death could have been prevented if she hadn’t been forced to wait for five months in Mexico, where they say the language barrier hindered her medical care.

One member of the group, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears challenging the US immigration system while his own asylum case is pending, was a doctor in Uganda and said he suspected Nabunjo died of tuberculosis. The disease is a significant public health problem in their home country, and Nabunjo’s symptoms were in line with its profile, the doctor said. She was exposed to the disease through her sister, developed a cough in April, and was complaining of chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, and night sweats when she was admitted to the hospital in September.

Migrants in Mexico are eligible for three months of government healthcare, which can be extended if they stay in the country longer. But accessing services can be difficult for Africans, who usually speak French or English rather than Spanish. Nabunjo spoke English.

The Ugandan doctor she befriended at the immigration shelter in Juárez tried to communicate his concerns about tuberculosis to the Spanish-speaking hospital staff, but struggled to make himself understood.

“Her death was very preventable,” he said.

Hospital officials declined to confirm Nabunjo’s cause of death to anyone other than a family member.

Made to wait

The US system that kept her waiting in Juárez is known as metering, and limits the number of migrants processed each day to no more than 40, depending on the port of entry. When Nabunjo arrived in Juárez, she was number 12,636 on the metering list, according to CLINIC.

A growing number of migrants at the southern US border are from Africa. More than 5,000 people from the continent were apprehended in Mexico in the first nine months of 2019, more than double the year before, as traditional exit routes through Libya and across the Mediterranean have become increasingly difficult to pass for African economic migrants and those fleeing repressive regimes and armed conflicts.

“Metering kills people. It does not give migrants the chance to apply for asylum.”

Activists say metering exposes migrants to danger in the Mexican border cities where they’re detained. Asked by TNH about the case and their wider border policies, the CBP wouldn’t comment on Nabunjo’s death and rejected the term metering, instead calling the practice necessary “queue management”.

An October 2019 report by Human Rights First documented hundreds of cases of police abuse, rape, and brutal attacks of asylum seekers in Mexican border cities. In addition, the Cameroon American Council documented about two dozen cases of human rights violations against Cameroonians forced to stay in Mexico under metering, and the group estimates there could be many more.

“Metering has existed for a long time, and it’s not correct,” said Tania Guerrero, a CLINIC lawyer who worked on Nabunjo’s asylum case. “Metering kills people. It does not give migrants the chance to apply for asylum.”

While the system has created additional barriers for all asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border, Africans face even greater obstacles due to discrimination, said Savitri Arvey, a graduate student researcher with the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego who has worked with asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.

There, just getting on the metering list has reportedly been more difficult for Africans than for other migrants. The city’s list is managed by the Mexican government organisation Grupo Beta in consultation with asylum seekers chosen by their peers, and Africans have reported being required to provide more documentation than Latin Americans.

The allegations sparked a protest in July, during which more than 100 asylum seekers from Cameroon blocked Mexican immigration vans until authorities agreed to meet. Negotiators emerged with a deal under which Mexican officials agreed to allow African representatives the right to review the metering list each day to ensure numbers were being called in order rather than based on special treatment, according to reporting by San Diego-based KPBS News. Fewer problems have been reported since then, Arvey said.

Mexican officials acknowledge the need to better address the unique needs of the growing African population in their northern cities, though no specifics have been announced.

"They are doubly vulnerable if they don't speak Spanish,” said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the State Population Council in Juárez. “They need additional attention.”

Out on a limb

Because African migrants stand out physically, they’re easily identified as targets by organised crime gangs and local delinquents.

Feambinda Goodlove, a Cameroonian asylum seeker, said he fled his homeland after spending three months in jail for allegedly supporting a government separatist movement. When interviewed by TNH in November, he had already been waiting another three months in Tijuana for his metering number to be called.

“We can’t stand up for what’s right, because we are scared.”

He said he rarely left his hotel for fear of crime or of somehow running afoul of corrupt authorities.

“We can’t stand up for what’s right, because we are scared,” Goddlove said. “When you have a difference with a Mexican, they just threaten to call immigration.”

Africans also report racism in a country that is becoming increasingly hostile toward migrants, as President Donald Trump’s administration strives to keep all undocumented foreigners in Mexico and stop the flow northwards into the United States.

This discrimination exists within a broader context of racism toward Afro-Latino populations in Mexico and Central America, said Sylvie Bello, founder and CEO of the Cameroon American Council, which works with asylum seekers along the border and in US cities.

Mexico only recently recognised the Afro-Mexican population in its census, and Afro-Central American populations are systematically excluded from work opportunities. They’ve also been the victims of exploitative land grabs in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

“Basically wherever the bottom of the totem pole is, they are beneath that,” Bello said.

African migrants traversing Mexico became even more vulnerable in August, when the government stopped issuing humanitarian visas that had allowed them temporary legal status in the country.

Still, Imelda Maynard, a lawyer for Catholic Charities who often works in Juárez, says African migrants have some of the strongest asylum cases because “it’s their home government, the military, or police who have beaten them for a political reason”. This means their asylum claims usually fit clearly into the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that defines a refugee as someone fleeing persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

In Cameroon, for example, a conflict between the government and armed opposition groups has led to more than 437,000 internally displaced people, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

And in Uganda, the country Nabunjo was fleeing when she died in Juárez, Human Rights Watch has reported that authorities often torture and arrest people for opposing President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for more than three decades.

CLINIC, the legal aid group that worked with Nabunjo, said she had faced political persecution and harassment there.

"She had a valid claim,” Guerrero said. “She was stripped of her rights. She died in a foreign country with no one around.”

Additional reporting by Emily Green in Tijuana, and reporting assistance from Clemente Sanchez.

Reporting for this story was funded by Reporting the Border, a project of the International Center for Journalists in partnership with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers.


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