Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2017, 10:40 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Mexico

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Mexico , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 24 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 2001, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) estimated that about 6,200 persons were refugees or asylum seekers in need of protection in Mexico, including 142 refugees granted asylum during the year, 12 asylum seekers whose cases were pending at year's end, and approximately 4,000 Guatemalans and 2,000 Salvadorans.

USCR no longer regards the vast majority of the approximately 12,000 Guatemalans living in camps in southern Mexico as refugees because they are fully integrated and are either Mexican citizens through birth or naturalization, or permanent residents with the possibility of becoming citizens.

During the year, 432 asylum seekers filed claims in Mexico, an increase of more than 50 percent from 2000. Of these, 142 were granted refugee status and 272 were rejected. The largest groups of recognized refugees came from Colombia (30) and Guatemala (28), while others were from Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and 16 other countries.

Refugees in Mexico are confronted with numerous barriers to integration, including expensive housing, little community support, and scarce job opportunities. An unknown number of refugees recognized in Mexico in 2001 chose to migrate to the United States or Canada during the year.

More than 11,000 Mexicans sought asylum in other countries in 2001, double the number that sought asylum in 2000.

Approximately 15,000 Mexicans remained internally displaced in Chiapas.


Mexico ratified the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol in 2000 and subsequently established an Eligibility Committee to consider refugee claims. However, at the end of 2001, no implementing legislation existed to enable the government to make refugee status determinations, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continued to conduct refugee status determinations during the year.

Mexico issues non-immigrant visitor's visas to individuals granted refugee status and generally permits refugees to work. However, the visa specifies the type of employment, and the refugee must apply for a new document to change jobs. The government also restricts the ability of refugees to move freely throughout the country. Individuals granted refugee status can remain in Mexico indefinitely and most can apply for naturalization after five years.

Mexico detained approximately 85 percent of asylum seekers who filed applications in 2001, up from 60 percent in 2000. Asylum seekers are held at an immigration detention facility in Mexico City.

The conditions of detention deteriorated in 2001, particularly after September 11, when Mexico detained increasing numbers of undocumented Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Indians, and others from outside the region. The immigration detention facility in Mexico City held two to three times its capacity during the year, and nongovernmental organizations alleged that detention conditions did not meet established international minimum standards. To ease overcrowding, the Mexican government began construction on a new building next to the existing facility.

UNHCR has access to asylum seekers after they file a claim with Mexican migration authorities. According to UNHCR, the Mexican government did not forcibly return any asylum seekers in 2001. One individual voluntarily repatriated to Guatemala during the year.

Restrictive Measures

In July, Mexico began a campaign to increase immigration enforcement at its southern border. The campaign – called Plan Sur – was aimed at stemming the number of unauthorized border crossers from Central America and countries outside the region. Under Plan Sur, Mexico deployed thousands of troops to the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca to conduct border patrols and checks. Hundreds more were deployed following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

In 2001, the Mexican government returned most detained migrants to their countries rather than sending them back across the border to Guatemala as in previous years. Mexico deported more than 130,000 migrants during the year. The United States helped to fund the deportation of migrants from Mexico to China, India, Sri Lanka, and other countries throughout the year.

All migrants apprehended at the southern border who are transferred to a detention center have access to refugee status determination procedures. However, not all intercepted migrants are detained; some are immediately returned to Guatemala without any assessment of their protection needs.

In 2001, at least 355 migrants died in Mexico while attempting to cross Mexico's borders. The number of asylum seekers among them was unknown.

After September 11, Mexico arrested and detained 87 Iraqi Chaldeans who were in Tijuana (a city on the Mexico-U.S. border) in the process of filing asylum applications in the United States. Because the immigration detention facility in Mexico City was already overcrowded, the Iraqis were transported to a naval base in the southern state of Campeche.

By the end of the year, 46 of the Iraqis – all of the families in the original group – were returned to Tijuana to continue the U.S. asylum process. The remaining 41 Iraqis remained in detention in Campeche.


Since the 1996 peace accord that marked the official end of Guatemala's long and bloody civil war, more than 43,000 refugees have returned to Guatemala. Some 23,000 – half of them born in Mexico – remained in Mexico. More than 9,000 had become Mexican citizens by the end of 2001; many more were already permanent residents, and the rest were in the process of gaining permanent residency and citizenship.

Mexico has divided Guatemalan refugees into two groups: rural refugees, who live in refugee settlements in southern Mexico; and urban refugees. Before 2001, only rural refugees were eligible for the "fast track" naturalization program established and partially funded by the Mexican government to speed the integration of the Guatemalan refugee population. In 2001, the program was expanded to include urban refugees. Nearly 50 urban Guatemalan refugees received naturalization certificates by the end of 2001, although by the end of the year Mexico had not committed to funding the program's expansion.

Internal Displacement

Internal displacement began when conflict broke out in the southern state of Chiapas in early 1994. The conflict between the Mexican army and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the EZLN, or Zapatistas), an insurgent group, had displaced thousands of indigenous people by the end of 2001. Other insurgent groups were active in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico, while paramilitary groups opposing them have also emerged.

Reports of the number of the displaced in Chiapas vary widely: in 2001, estimates ranged from 8,000 to 20,000.

USCR estimates that approximately 15,000 persons remained displaced in Chiapas because of continuing conflict between the government forces and the EZLN. A number of people are also internally displaced in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, but because few international observers monitor these areas, no accurate estimate of the number of displaced is available.

During the first months of the year, Mexican president Vicente Fox and the EZLN actively engaged in talks to achieve peace in Chiapas. In April, the national legislature passed a modified indigenous rights bill (which became law in July) that Subcommandante Marcos, the leader of the EZLN, declared "a betrayal" of Fox's pledge to protect and promote the rights of indigenous communities. Immediately after the law was passed, the EZLN declared an end to the dialogue with the government.

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