Weve been taken hostage: African migrants stranded in Mexico after Trump’s crackdown

Hundreds of migrants from Africa are stuck in Tapachula because of Mexicos willingness to bow to Trump and stem the flow of migrants

Neh knew she was taking a risk when she got involved with English-language activists in mostly-Francophone Cameroon.

She had no way of know that her decision would eventually force her to flee her country, fly halfway across the world and then set out on a 4,000-mile trek through dense jungle and across seven borders only to leave her stranded in southern Mexico, where her hopes of finding safety in the US were blocked by the Mexican governments efforts to placate Donald Trumps anti-migrant rage.

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It is just too much, sobbed Neh,at a protest camp set up by migrants from across Africa outside the main immigration offices in the sweltering southern city of Tapachula. We thought our suffering was almost over. And now were stuck here, treated like the lowest citizens on earth.

Not that long ago, Neh worked as a microfinance officer and lived with her husband and three children in a small town in the West of Cameroon. Earlier this year, she joined a group campaigning for anglophone independence. She insists her activism was peaceful and that she never supported rebel groups, but amid spiralling violence, she was arrested, beaten, and raped by soldiers. One night, an officer took her from her cell and told her to start running. She imagined she was about to die but instead she ran into the arms of her husband who had paid a bribe for her freedom.

Hustled into hiding, Neh was then put on a plane to Quito where she joined the growing number of migrants from around the world using Ecuador as the jumping off point for the passage north.


The harrowing journey requires crossing the the lawless jungles of Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, where migrants risk wild animals, raging rivers and predatory robbers .

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For seven days, the 37-year-old hauled herself up and down mountain slopes, hanging on tree roots. Crossing a river, she was almost swept away by the current; an insect bite paralyzed her arm. And each day, her group passed the bloated and half-eaten corpses of others who had died on the same trail.

The next stage of her odyssey was more straightforward. With the help of bribes and official paperwork, Neh travelled by bus across Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. She began to dream of a new life in the US, reunited with the three children she had left behind.

And then, in Mexico, everything ground to an halt. She joined hundreds of migrants from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Eritrea, Mauritania, and a smattering of other African countries who are stuck in Tapachula because of Mexicos willingness to bow to Trump and stem the flow of migrants.

Until recently, African migrants were waved through Mexico by immigration officials who had no interest in stopping them. Photograph: Isaac Guzman/AFP/Getty Images

Trumps main target has always Central Americans who account for most of the migrant flow through Mexico. But the crackdown has caught up travelers from all around the world.

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Their situation has only been exacerbated by US policies. Earlier this month the US supreme court ruled that the US authorities could deny asylum to anybody who passed through another country to get there.

Meanwhile, US officials have pressured Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to accept asylum seekers from third countries, even though they are among the most dangerous countries in the world.

We have been taken hostage. We want our freedom, said Jos Pel Messa, a TV presenter who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 first for Angola, and then Brazil, which he had left earlier this year when the security situation there made life untenable.

Around him, the inhabitants of the protest camp were gearing up for another day of boredom, under the watchful eye of a group of National Guard officers in riot gear.

Railings were draped with blankets and clothes sodden in the previous nights downpour. Migrants grouped by nationality or language pored over documents in Spanish that they couldnt read or scanned their phones for news from home. A pregnant woman prepared soup on a small wooden burner outside her tent. A couple of toddlers were using discarded plastic bottles as drums.

Pel gestured at the desultory scene: I took my children through the jungle for this? Im a corpse. I just havent started rotting yet.

Until recently, African migrants were waved through Mexico by immigration officials who had no interest in stopping them.

But after Trumps threat of trade tariffs in May, Mexicos government scrambled to clamp down: flooding the south of the country with law enforcement, and stepping up cooperation with the US policy of sending asylum seekers back into northern Mexico while their cases are processed.

For migrants from countries in Africa, who are much harder to repatriate, it has meant being kept in limbo. Photograph: Isaac Guzman/AFP/Getty Images

For Central Americans trying to get through southern Mexico the crackdown has brought more raids, record numbers of deportations, and greater vulnerability to criminal attacks as they are pushed into less visible routes.

For migrants from countries in Africa, who are much harder to repatriate, it has meant being kept in limbo.

Previously, Mexican immigration authorities had typically issued African migrants with documents ordering them to sort out their status or leave the country within 21 days. Now these documents, which had previously served as de facto transit visas, order them to leave by the southern border.

Mexico is using us as an instrument of politics to please Donald Trump, said Serge, 21, who also fled the conflict in Cameroon. This is creating a lot of anger among us.

Frustration in the camp has bubbled over several times, leading to some scuffles with the authorities. This weekend a small group of desperate Africa temporarily blocked a car carrying Filippo Grandi, the head of UNHCR who was visiting Tapachula. One pregnant woman threw herself in front of the cars wheels crying and pleading for help.

Migrants are particularly angered by the perception that they are being coerced into applying for asylum in Mexico where few feel safe and almost none want to stay.

Mexico is playing games with us, said a 36-year-old engineer from Eritrea who identified himself as Mr Testahiwet. This is the way to get to America and we want to go to America. Mexico is the wrong place to ask for asylum.

Some are so desperate they have begun looking for ways to get through Mexico undetected though their skin colour and their lack of Spanish makes this hard to do.

One recent dawn, at a major crossing point on the Suchiate river, not far from Tapachula, around 10 Cameroonians clambered onto a raft made of huge inner tubes and headed towards the Guatemalan side.

The migrants sat in a glum and nervous silence as they were punted across, and then piled into cars with blackened windows, presumably driven by people smugglers who had promised to get them through Mexico by another route.

Back at the camp, Kelly, another English-speaking refugee from Cameroon, said she hadnt been able to speak to her children for weeks. Back home, she had been a physics teacher, but she fled her job and her home when the rebels enforced a school boycott on pain of death.

You leave when you cant take it anymore. You start running, and you keep running until you can stop, she said. We are not looking for greener pastures we are looking for safety.

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