Hundreds of African migrants have taken part in a series of protests in Tapachula, a Mexican town near the border with Guatemala, since August 18. The protesters, who have been trapped in the town for weeks, are demanding documents so they can travel north to the United States and Canada. Due to pressure from the United States, Mexico has been cracking down on migrants.

Increasing numbers of Africans migrants are choosing to cross the Atlantic instead of the Mediterranean to reach the United States or Canada by travelling through South and Central America. The journey is expensive, long and dangerous. Drug and human traffickers frequent the route. At certain points in the journey, there are even poisonous animals pose (especially in the jungled Darién Gap, located on the border between Colombia and Panama).

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Migrants face perilous passage through Panama in hopes of reaching US

But for the past few months, many of these migrants have faced another obstacle. Changes to Mexican migration policy have left many stuck in southern Mexico, unable to continue their travels to the north. So several hundreds of them started to protest on August 18, in front of the 21th century migrant holding facility ("Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI" in Spanish), which is run by the National Institute of Migration, a unit of the Mexican government that controls and supervises migration in the country, in Tapachula, Chiapas state. Those who joined in the protests were from many different countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Somalia.

Tapachula, a town in Chiapas state in southern Mexico, is marked with a red dot on this map.


At the beginning of last week, the protest in Tapachula had a party atmosphere. (Video sent to our team by one of the protesters)

Women protest in Tapachula. (Video sent to our team by one of the protesters)

"All we want is a document guaranteeing us the freedom of movement to travel through this country"

Alain Tita Mongu takes part in the protests. Mongu left his native Cameroon in early May. He flew to Ecuador, then crossed Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala before arriving in Talismán, Mexico in early June. He explained why he and other migrants had decided to protest:

Two days after I arrived in Mexico, I was put in immigration detention in Tapachula for having entered the country illegally.

Two weeks later, they released me and handed me a document that I thought would guarantee me freedom to travel through the country-- some of the Africans who arrived in Mexico a few months prior had explained to me that’s how it works. So I immediately hopped on a bus going north. But about an hour and half into my journey, there was a security check and I was sent to Tapachula. It turned out that the document that I had didn’t even authorise me to leave Chiapas.

I had to go to the Mexican immigration service in Tapachula’s Las Vegas neighbourhood. Once there, I realized that my document was utterly useless because it stated that I was “stateless”.


"Down with racism! We are not stateless, we have a nationality”, reads this banner. (One of the protestors sent our team this photo.)
 

In the end, they told me to go to the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados [Editor’s note: the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid] to claim asylum.

Other people had the same experience [Editor’s note: The France 24 Observers also spoke to other African migrants who described going through a similar process]. Basically, we’ve been here for weeks. All we want is a document allowing us the freedom to travel across Mexico and not to be forced to claim asylum. We don’t want to claim asylum here, especially because you have to wait several months for a response and you can’t work during that time. That’s why we started protesting.

I didn’t actually apply for asylum and, to be honest, very few people did. Or, if I must, I’d rather claim asylum in northern Mexico where I know some people and where it’s possible to get by with English.


Stricted Mexican migration policy

The situation that Mongu and the other migrants find themselves in is a result of changes in Mexican migration policy. Early this year, Mexican authorities were still giving migrants so-called “humanitarian” visas, which allowed them to travel to the north of the country. However, they stopped doing this about five months ago. Without proper papers, the migrants are essentially stuck in southern Mexico.

These policy changes can be in part explained by pressure from the administration of US president Donald Trump. When Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018, he promised a gentler approach to undocumented migrants. However, faced with Trump’s threats of tariffs and border closures, the Mexican government has taken a much more heavy-handed approach to controlling migration.

"We’d like to, at least, have a roof over our heads"

But some of the migrants trapped in Tapachula want more than just papers. They are also calling for more support from the Mexican government to help them navigate this situation. The France 24 Observers team spoke to Lorena (not her real name), an Angolan woman who arrived in Mexico in early July, two months after she left home. Lorena and her husband are travelling with their seven children, between the ages of 1 and 17.

If they won’t let us travel and we’re are stuck waiting here for weeks, we’d like to at least have a roof over our heads and some aid to help us get by, because we’re out of money. Especially if we are forced to apply for asylum.

Currently, my family and I are sleeping in the street in tents that we bought in Colombia. The authorities tell us that they don’t have any lodging for us. The children are always crying because they don’t understand what is going on.


Many Africans are sleeping in the streets while they wait for a solution to this crisis (Video sent to our team by one of the protesters)
 

My daughters speak a bit of Spanish so they were able to get us some cooking pots and camping stoves so that we can cook. We eat rice or pasta in the morning and at night. We migrants do all try to help each other out.



The migrants scrounge up what they can to eat. (One of the protestors sent our team this photo)
 
On August 20, Mexican security forces tried to clear out the protesters in front of Siglo XXI and arrested several men, who were later released. On August 21, there was a surge in tensions after security officers also harassed women and children taking part in the protests.

Security forces were deployed to Tapachula on August 20. (One of the protesters sent our team this video)

There was a surge in tensions in Tapachula on August 21. (Video by Lorena).

There was a surge in tensions in Tapachula on August 21. (Video by Lorena).
 

The France 24 Observers team called the Mexican immigration service in Tapachula several times, but received no response. According to Amnesty International, the Mexican immigration services are completely overwhelmed by the huge numbers of migrants arriving at their southern border. The migrant protestors say that authorities have not made any offers of compromise since the start of the demonstrations. 
 

Article by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).