US migrant deportations risk spreading coronavirus to Central America


Migrants deported from the United States are seen outside the air force base upon their arrival in Guatemala City on 12 December 2019.Photograph: Orlando Estrada/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns are growing that the deportation of migrants from the US and Mexico could accelerate the spread of coronavirus in Central America, after authorities in Honduras[5] suspended repatriation flights and confirmed the first two cases in the country. Honduras became the third country in Central America – and the first in the Northern Triangle region which is the largest source of migration to the US – to confirm cases of the virus late on Tuesday. The cases both involved people who had recently returned from Europe, but three men deported from the US also arrived presenting symptoms of the virus.

The three deportees – aged between 18 and 26 – have been placed in isolation, and President Juan Orlando Hernandez called for calm, saying on Wednesday: “We cannot allow ourselves to be guided by panic or hysteria.” But activists fear that the constant flow of deportees from the US and Mexico could complicate the region’s ability to contain the virus. More than 1,000 cases and 38 deaths from the virus have been confirmed in the US.

“Those countries need to be reviewing a moratorium on deportations right now in light of this illness,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a migration expert based in Central America. So far, Central America has just one death – in Panama – and a handful of confirmed cases in Panama, Costa Rica and now Honduras. But the pandemic reaches the region just as Honduras and El Salvador were due to follow Guatemala[6] and implement “safe third country” agreements with Washington, under which migrants seeking asylum at the US border will instead be diverted to Central America.

Health workers have warned that the virus will inevitably find a foothold in US immigration detention centers[7] where overcrowding and limited healthcare are endemic. Meanwhile the grueling journey north leaves migrants particularly vulnerable. Lack of food, sleep and constant stress lead to fatigue and weakened immune defenses, said Karen Valladares, director of the migrant rights group Fonamih in Honduras.

“On their journey migrants are more susceptible – not only to coronavirus – but also other illnesses,” she said. The lack of access to medical care and close quarters at migrant shelters, camps and detention centers further exacerbates the risk. Migrant rights organizations have also recommended against traveling in caravans to avoid infection.

With no sign that the US and Mexico plan to suspend deportations, experts called for increased medical screenings before migrants are placed on planes or buses – the most common form of transportation for Mexican deportations. “Before there is a return, there must be an evaluation,” said Valladares. “One person can infect the 99 others that are in the bus.” Exposing migrants to the virus would not only be negligent, but also a violation of their rights, she added.

Meanwhile Guatemala announced new measures to control migrant flows heading northwards[8], on the grounds that it was seeking to stop the spread of coronavirus. After a relatively small caravan left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Monday, Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, said the migrants would be stopped at the border. “Everyone will have their temperature taken and any person who has [coronavirus] symptoms will not be let in.” The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, took a more dramatic approach, announcing on Wednesday a “national quarantine”, closing schools for 21 days and a ban on entry to the country for any foreign nationals who are not residents or diplomats.

Analysts say temporary restrictions – and the fear of crowded public spaces – may cause a drop in migration northwards.

But the long-term economic impact of the crisis could lead to a reduction in remittances from the US, and an increase in unemployment in the region, forcing more people to head north out of economic desperation.



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