Olivier Dubois has taken the reins at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Mexico and Central America during a year in which there has been an alarming increase in migrants who are looking to reach the United States. There has been a 43% increase in crossings by those hailing from Mexico and a 974% increase in those hailing from Honduras.
This massive flow of people – who cross Central America and Mexico – are trapped in a difficult situation. They face violence from criminal groups, including kidnappings, extortion and forced disappearances. In addition, the Mexican authorities have militarized the borders and maintain a heavy-handed policy that has generated unfortunate scenes, such as the violent crackdown against migrants at checkpoints, or horrific events, such as the fire in a detention center in Ciudad Juárez, where 40 people died.
Dubois, 52, assures EL PAÍS that the ICRC maintains an active dialogue with the Mexican immigration authorities to achieve changes that will guarantee a more humane treatment of migrants.
“What is urgent is that the authorities have training, equipment and clear orders in terms of the use of force to avoid the risk of abuse,” the Belgian national affirms.
Question. How does the ICRC deal with a situation as tragic as the one that has occurred in Ciudad Juárez, with the death of 40 migrants?
Answer. We offered our support to the authorities and they asked us for about 50 bags to protect the corpses of the [burned] victims in a dignified manner, before repatriating them to their places of origin. We were in contact with relatives of the deceased and we supported them with psychosocial support… we also [facilitated] contact with the respective authorities. In this case, we can say that there was good coordination between Mexico and the countries of origin to provide the information needed to quickly identify and repatriate the deceased.
Q. These migrants were detained and locked up in those cells without being charged with any crime. How do you assess the use of force by the authorities against migrants?
A. The immigration issue is quite complicated and there are different ways to deal with it. What we do is visit these immigration centers and [inspect] the conditions inside. We also have a dialogue with the authorities to ensure [that migrants] are treated with dignity and respect. The position of the International Committee is that the deprivation of liberty of migrants simply for being migrants – without being recognized as the perpetrators of crimes – should be a rare occurrence. What we can see now, after this tragedy, is that there is a healthy debate about the use of [incarceration] against migrants.
Q. It seems that the Mexican authorities are interested in criminalizing migrants.
A. I can’t say so for certain. What seems important to me is to open all possibilities to ensure that migrants are not seen as criminals – that they can have dignity and security, as well as opportunities. And it’s not so easy, because the number of people who arrived in Mexico grew a lot last year, including [the number of] those who arrived irregularly. What complicates the matter now is that there’s a wide variety of countries of origin.
Q. You mention that part of the work that the Committee does is to examine the conditions of the places where the migrants are detained. What conclusions do you draw? Do these facilities have the humanitarian conditions necessary to receive migrants?
A. Our body does not make public assessments or public complaints when there’s a condition that is not in accordance with international humanitarian standards. The way in which we work is to have this position to access places of detention, whether for migrants or other people deprived of their liberty. It’s a privilege. And then, we take advantage of that privileged position to have a direct discussion with [the inmates] and maintain a dialogue with the authorities in charge. It’s not a discussion only to highlight bad practices, but also to encourage good practices that should be replicated within the institutions.
Q. But have you been able to verify that the minimum requirements are met to guarantee a decent stay for the migrants in these places?
A. The idea is not to qualify and say whether or not it meets these types of requirements, but rather for us to be able to say that the authorities have offered us a space for dialogue. I think about the feedback we’ve had: they thank us for proposing solutions and also giving them the chance to react. The world isn’t perfect, but what we find is a willingness to listen and respond to our observations.
Q. What measures should immigration authorities take to prevent tragedies like the one in Ciudad Juárez from occurring?
A. The most basic thing is to review the security protocols in these places, to be able to react in case of an emergency. And then there must be a reflection on how Mexico and other countries – such as those in Central America – should adapt to the different changes in the migratory situation.
Another important issue is to continue to clearly inform all migrants about the possibility of having access to services – of learning about immigration procedures in this country (Mexico), or in the United States. Many want to have the information quickly, because 2020 was a year of changes in migration policies and procedures. There’s a lot of misinformation, which really prevents migrants from making good decisions.
Q. Is the Committee concerned about the fact that the issue of migration has been militarized? In other words, we’ve seen an enormous deployment of the National Guard to limit the entry of migrants into Mexico.
A. What’s important to remember here is that – whatever the authorities have deployed – [they must] have the training, the equipment and clear orders in terms of the use of force to avoid the risk of abuse. The important issue is to take all precautions to safeguard dignity and have a use of force that is aligned with international standards.
Q. A few years ago, the head of the Red Cross mission was expelled from Nicaragua without the Nicaraguan government giving any explanations. What is the relationship you have at this moment with the government of Nicaragua?
A. We’re still there. We have a colleague who does her job. We have visited penitentiary centers and we have trained officials about the rules, on the ways of treating prisoners. We also support the Nicaraguan Red Cross in carrying out its work. In this sense, we had the chance to directly support them when Hurricane Julia hit last year. We have an agreement to enter penal centers and, at the same time, we have a more confidential space for dialogue with the authorities. That’s why we don’t communicate so much about the matter, because we think that we should favor this confidential dialogue to achieve some changes.
Q. Have you been able to negotiate the return of a representative of the Committee to Managua?
A. There’s a manager who is present, who has been able to continue working since last year. On the other hand, I went to Nicaragua twice and I will probably go again, because it’s necessary to have a dialogue with the authorities and continue the work.
Q. The Government of Nicaragua released more than 200 people who were considered political prisoners. The opposition claims that there are still at least 30 people detained, whom they consider to be political prisoners. Have you been able to have access to them? Have you been able to speak to them? Have you seen their living conditions?
A. It’s not my role right now to talk about particular cases, but rather to highlight the fact that we’ve had the opportunity to visit different prisons and have this private conversation with 108 people. Of course, what we’re looking for is to also speak to people who are vulnerable, but I’m not going to go into detail regarding personal cases.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition