Friday, February 4, 2011

From Principles to Process: Mexico's New Asylum Law

Last Thursday, President Felipe Calderon signed Mexico's new Law on Refugees and Complementary Protection. Mexico, which acceded to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 2000, created this law in order to bring its practices into line with international standards. The law is expansive and inclusive in its definitions and principles, but falls short on process and protection for disfavored groups.
Mexico could certainly stand to be more generous to asylum seekers. Though an estimated 400,000 refugees reside in Latin America and approximately half a million migrants cross into Mexico each year, there are just over 1000 refugees currently residing in Mexico. Most refugees come from other Latin American countries (mainly Colombia, Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) but Mexico also hosts refugees from around the world (including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Nigeria, Myanmar, Somalia, and Sri Lanka).
The law's refugee status provisions are framed by several noble principles: no return, no discrimination, best interests of the child, family unity, no sanction for unlawful entry, and confidentiality. It boldly puts several of these guarantees into practice through its very broad and inclusive definitions.
Perhaps most notably, the new law adds gender to the traditional list of five protected grounds upon which asylum law is based. And that's just the beginning as far as non-discrimination is concerned; the law further prohibits discrimination based on ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disability, social or economic status, health conditions, pregnancy, religion, opinions, sexual preferences, and marital status.
The guarantees of family unity are profound; refugees can extend derivative status to spouses, partners, blood relatives to the fourth degree, and economically dependent blood relatives of their partner/spouse to the second degree. This status is valuable, as the law provides that individuals granted refugee status and/or complementary protection are also granted permanent residence in Mexico, enabling long-term family unity and stability.
Mexico is also the fifteenth Latin American country to include the broader refugee definition found in the Cartagena Declaration, which offers protection to those fleeing not only individualized persecution but also generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances seriously disturbing public order. This definition offers a potential avenue for gang-based asylum claims from Central America, but it remains to be seen whether these will be actualized.
The law is rather vague on processes for recognition, revocation, and termination procedures, all of which should at least be subject to basic due process protections. For example, the law states that a refugee may be expelled if there are substantial grounds for believing that they are a threat to national security, but does not describe how this determination will happen and what rights will be due the refugee. On the other hand, the law is disturbingly specific on time limits -- asylum seekers must submit their applications within 30 business days of entry into Mexico. Mexican NGO Sin Fronteras has further criticized the law for its failure to create alternatives to detention for asylum seekers. And it will be quite a challenge to begin implementing the law's provisions until a budget for refugee procedures is approved.
It remains to be seen how both the very progressive rights laid out in and the troublingly vague and strict provisions of the law will be realized in practice. One can only hope that Mexico's reformed asylum process will reflect the lofty principles that guide the law rather than the increasingly exclusionary approaches to refugee law and policy practiced in Mexico's neighbor to the north.

(translation of the Mexican law, and any errors therein, are mine)


doni boyd Simonson said...

I would like to see other countries follow this exemplary and bold lead of Mexico. I see this as a powerful step upwards and forwards for Mexico. For many years I have heard and read about the atrocities committed to immigrants and others by a land north of Mexico - and these rumors were being passed by those who were (and in many ways still are) probably equal if not more gross in their treatment of a people who for whatever reason were or are looking for a 'better' quality of life - I speak of Mexico and her people. Being an asylum seeker myself, and having traveled up from South America, I had and still witness many such atrocities. I spent weeks in two countries’ ‘detention’ facilities. And though I had witnessed much suffering and sorrow by immigrants in both of these countries and others, none could or can compare to what I have heard and personally witnessed and experienced here in Mexico.

doni boyd Simonson said...

Why is it that in so many of our 'modern' societies, in order for a person to be treated equally as a human he or she must first prove that he or she is 'legal' to be treated as a human?