Desert or Sea: Virus Traps Migrants in Mid-Route Danger Zone

Migrants have been dropped by the truckload in the Sahara or bused to Mexico’s border with Guatemala and beyond

IOM Niger via AP

Thousands of desperate migrants are trapped in limbo and even at risk of death without food, water or shelter in scorching deserts and at sea, as governments close off borders and ports in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Migrants have been dropped by the truckload in the Sahara or bused to Mexico’s border with Guatemala and beyond. Others are drifting in the Mediterranean after European and Libyan authorities declared their ports unsafe. And around 100 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are believed to have died in the Bay of Bengal, as country after country pushed them back out to sea.

Many governments say that a public health crisis requires extraordinary measures. However, these measures are just the latest steps taken to clamp down on migrants.

“They just dumped us,” said Fanny Jacqueline Ortiz, a 37-year-old Honduran who was abandoned March 26 with her two young daughters at the lonely El Ceibo border crossing with Guatemala, expelled first by the U.S. and then by Mexico.

Since the aftermath of World War II, international and some national laws have protected refugees and asylum-seekers. Nations have the right to close themselves off for national security, but cannot forcibly return migrants to danger, according to Dr. Violeta Moreno-Lax, professor of migration law at Queen Mary University of London.

Yet that is exactly what is happening.

“The pandemic provides the perfect excuse,” said Moreno-Lax.

The desert deportations have been happening for years in North Africa and beyond, and Europe has been deadlocked on how to handle migrationon the Mediterranean since the 2015 migration crisis. In the United States, President Donald Trump made migration a central issue of his winning 2016 campaign.

But this year, coronavirus has shifted the dynamic and allowed governments to crack down even harder, even as the desperation of those on the move remains unchanged.

In the United States, Trump is using a little-known 1944 public health law to set aside decades-old American immigration law. Nearly 10,000 Mexicans and Central Americans were “expelled” to Mexico less than three weeks after the new rules took effect March 21, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. authorities say the decision was not about immigration but about public health.

Mexico then pushes the migrants further south. Mexico denies that it leaves migrants to fend for themselves, saying it coordinates with their home governments.

Migrants have also been left stranded in similarly makeshift conditions in the Sahara Desert, after being expelled from Algeria and Libya.

Groups of dozens are walking 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 10 miles) through the desert from a no-man’s-land called Point Zero to the dusty frontier village of Assamaka in neighboring Niger. There, new arrivals remain in makeshift quarantine for 14 days.

More than 2,300 foreign migrants are stranded in Niger, unable to return home or go anywhere else, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration.

In Libya, the migrant detention center in Kufra expelled nearly 900 men and women from April 11 to 15, taking them by truck or bus across hundreds of miles of sand and leaving them either in a remote town in Chad or at a Sahara border post in Sudan, according to Lt. Mohamed Ali al-Fadil, the center’s director. Hundreds more came the following week.

Al-Fadil said the center is “deporting more people faster than ever before.” He said the expulsions are an attempt to shield migrants from the coronavirus.

Yet the large groups of migrants forced out are in danger not only of the coronavirus but of midday temperatures that can rise to 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) this time of year.

Hundreds of other migrants are stuck at sea in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal.

The Mediterranean has been unpatrolled by rescue boats for two weeks. The last two such vessels are lashed together off the coast of Italy along with a ferry holding 180 migrants rescued in April, all of them in a 14-day waterborne quarantine.

The boats will ultimately dock. But no country has agreed to take in the migrants, who will stay on the ferry until their fate is decided. Any others who try to leave Libya's squalid coastal detention centers or cramped smuggler's warehouses will face an equally uncertain future, either pushed back to Libya or adrift at sea.

Half a world away, hundreds of Rohingya refugees are also stranded at sea in the Bay of Bengal. Weeks ago, they boarded at least two fishing trawlers, and are now marooned off the coast of Bangladesh.

Fishermen spotted the boats on April 20, and the United Nations refugee agency said they may have been at sea for weeks without enough food and water. A group of 29 made it to an island in southern Bangladesh on Saturday. The aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said survivors on another boat that ultimately made it to shore estimated around 100 had died waiting.

The Bangladeshi government said it cannot sustain more refugees and still keep a handle on the coronavirus crisis. Malaysia has also denied entry to several other boats, each with dozens on board.

In her tiny bamboo home in the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, Rahima Khatun has been sleepless since losing contact with her daughter, who went to sea with her grandchildren more than 50 days ago to join her son-in-law in Malaysia.

Khatun is not sure which boat they are on but she has heard about the stranded trawlers.

“If I had wings I would fly and go see where they are,” Khatun said. “They are not being allowed to enter either Bangladesh or Malaysia – just floating in the middle with no one to help them out.”

This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Maria Verza, Elliot Spagat, Shafiqur Rahman and Julhas Alam contributed to this report.

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