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Mexico begins moving caravan migrants to new shelter but faces mistrust

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Originally published by The Washington Post

Mexican authorities have begun moving Central American migrants from a crowded, increasingly unsanitary encampment to a government-run shelter farther from the U.S.-Mexico border, raising fears among members of a migrant caravan that their dreams of seeking asylum in the United States will be dashed.

Buses arrived to take people to the new shelter starting Thursday evening as rain pelted the encampment in a sports complex, deepening the misery of more than 6,000 migrants stuck in limbo amid trash and mud. By 10:30 p.m., about 700 people had gone to the new shelter, called Barretal, in what was formerly a concert space, the Mexican Commission on Human Rights said.

But many migrants, the bulk of them from Honduras, were staying put, suspicious of Mexican authorities’ intentions.

“People are distrustful that it’s an immigration trick, that it’s not what they say it is and that they will really be deported,” said Amelia Vitale, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan and an immigration expert who has traveled with migrant caravans for years. It’s happened before in southern Mexico.”

In the meantime, many of the migrants are trying to get permits allowing them to stay and work legally in Mexico, she said. “They also have no idea where they are going — which makes them worried that they won’t be near banks, where families are sending them money, or stores where they can buy food, since the food here doesn’t always stretch. Many of them have part-time jobs nearby that they’ve picked up. There are a lot of reasons people are hesitating.”

Unsanitary conditions at the encampment have raised concerns among aid workers and humanitarian organizations that the migrants, packed into a space intended for half their number, are susceptible to outbreaks of disease. Already, many are suffering from lice infestations and respiratory infections, officials said.

Mexican authorities touted the advantages of the new shelter, pointing out that the Mexican navy is on the scene to handle food distribution and that transportation to a job fair will be provided. They expressed hope that those who initially took the buses to the new site would report back to others and encourage them to come.

“It’s a much better place, and all of the help and government services will be there,” said Edgar Corzo Sosa, a spokesman for the Mexican Commission on Human Rights.

Among the skeptics was Karla Vinegas, 23, from La Ceiba, Honduras.

“My brother wanted to go, so he’ll report back,” she said as she stood outside her tent on a baseball field, surrounded by mud puddles and a soggy assortment of trash. “Of course I don’t want to live in this trash heap. It’s a nightmare here. But I want to see where they are really taking us — I cannot go back to Honduras. If he says everything is fine, I’ll go in the morning. It will still make me nervous, but they already told us we can’t stay here, so I guess I’ll have no choice.”

Another Honduran, José Herrera, 35, complained: “This is putting us farther from our goal. We want to go to the United States, and they are sending us farther from the border, farther from where you sign up to ask for asylum.” He said he hopes to work for a while and get an apartment “while I wait my turn for asylum.”

Like others in the encampment, Yamelet Martinez, 28, said she did not know the location of the new shelter, having heard only that it is an hour’s drive away. “I want to hear what happens before I go anywhere,” she said.

With rain inundating the baseball field and turning the grounds to mud, Marisol Murillo, 22, and her daughter Estefania, 6, moved their tent onto a nearby street along with several other migrants.

“I really don’t know what to do,” she said. “I have a number on the list to ask to apply for asylum, but I want to work while I wait, and they’ve told us nothing. I think I’ll wait and see what other people are doing.”

Cesar Palencia, head of the migrant affairs office dealing with the caravan, said the new shelter has four roofed areas and “all the government services.” United Nations and other organizations will have a presence there, he said. Yet, it has been difficult to get people to leave the encampment voluntarily, he said.

“We haven’t had the response that we want,” he lamented. “We didn’t think that so few would accept the offer. This was never an adequate space for them. . . . The idea is that they will voluntarily leave between today and tomorrow.”

Palencia added: “I don’t know what will happen if they don’t leave. I think they’ll see that the new space is adequate and that here there won’t be a kitchen, there won’t be bathrooms. They’ll have to understand that it’s not adequate.”

Branigin reported from Washington.

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