When I walked into the Matamoros refugee camp on the Mexican border with Texas, I had no idea what to expect. What I saw will haunt me forever.

In the makeshift camp, surrounded by children, I met one woman who showed me a blurry photo on her mobile phone.

“If you want to leave the camp, you’ve got to pay [the cartels]. If not, this is what can happen to you,” she explained.

The photo displayed the body of a man, young enough to be her son, face down in the Rio Grande, which acts as a boundary between Mexico and the United States of America. 

The 22-year-old victim had been her neighbour for months in the makeshift camp in which she and around 1,000 other refugees and displaced people from Latin America reside. 

Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Hondurans and Mexicans have escaped brutal conditions at home, only to find themselves, trapped by US legislation, in a limbo filled with mosquitoes, snakes, rats and at the mercy of criminal cartels who extort, rape and kill the camp’s vulnerable residents with impunity. 

Around 50 per cent of people in the camp are children.

People who make arduous and traumatic journeys to seek asylum are often denied the safety they should be entitled to under human rights laws and treaties which countries, including the United States, are party to.

In the US, the use of so-called ‘Migrant Protection Protocols’ introduced last year means asylum seekers entering or attempting to enter the country from Mexico can be pushed back to Mexico to await a decision on their application. With the arrival of COVID-19, the system ground to a halt, forcing vulnerable people to spend months in territories run by extremely violent cartels.

Their daily survival relies on the care and compassion of individuals and small local organisations who strive to ensure that the refugees have access to the bare necessities.

What I saw will haunt me forever- Regina Catrambone

My visit to Matamoros earlier this year was the first I have made to a refugee camp in the Americas. But, as an Italian, living and working in Europe where my husband and I founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in 2014, I am, sadly, no stranger to witnessing first-hand the plight of refugees and displaced people.

In Malta, MOAS’ work relies greatly on the good will of local volunteers who give their support to everything, ranging from hospital visits, to providing support to those saved from overcrowded or capsized dinghies, and to making masks for migrants to help them defend themselves against the pandemic.

I also work with MOAS in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where almost one million Rohingya refugees live after fleeing extreme violence in Myanmar.

Cox’s Bazar is one of the most impoverished regions of Bangladesh, yet, that did not prevent local people from opening their hearts, providing food and following their spiritual faith to support desperate people in need when they first arrived. 

One of the things that shocked me most when I arrived in Matamoros was the grim similarity between the desperate conditions imposed on the refugees on the American/Mexican border and those on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border. 

How, I wondered, could the US, a country that holds itself to be a great superpower, be unable or unwilling to provide better conditions than those offered by Bangladesh, a still-developing nation? In forcing the refugees back into Mexico, the US’s (MPP) – Migrant Protection Protocols – certainly do not offer migrants any form of ‘protection’. Instead, they violate international laws banning refoulement or ‘pushback’ agreements aimed to ensure the world’s most vulnerable people are not forced back to countries where their lives are endangered.

We must also remember that in the United States, there are more than 11 million people without identification papers, some of them stateless. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan granted such people an amnesty. A new amnesty would ensure the rights of these people that are living like ghosts.

It is our duty as responsible and compassionate human beings to urge the United States and all other nations that refuse to allow refugees safe entry into their countries to apply for asylum, to uphold international protocols. 

It is important not to disempower refugees by failing to recognise their strength. The people I met in Matamoros are survivors of terrible events who have found ways to maintain their independence and dignity: I think of one widow I met who had escaped to the border in fear for her life after her husband’s death. A proud cook, she has set up a tiny business making and selling donuts to her fellow refugees.

But anyone forced to flee their home is vulnerable and deserving of pastoral care. As citizens of the world, we should not hesitate to speak out when governments of any country seek to throw refugees to the wolves with policies that leave them at the mercy of criminals, traffickers and warmongers.

Regina Catrambone is co-founder, Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

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