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border campsThe United States’ Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, better known as “Remain in Mexico,” is a policy that requires those seeking asylum within the United States entering from the southern border to wait outside of the United States in Mexico while their cases are reviewed by immigration judges. Since its implementation in January 2016, this policy has led to the build-up of camps of asylum seekers around Mexico. These U.S.-Mexico border camps are ridden with crime, disease and other dangers.

Rampant Crime in US-Mexico Border Camps

The NGO, Human Rights First, has reported more than 1,314 cases of rape, kidnapping, murder, torture and other violent crimes against migrants forced to return to Mexico. Of those cases, 318 have been kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children. Rampant police corruption in border cities means nothing is done to protect migrants. Crimes including extortion, assault and sexual harassment have all been reported against members of the Mexican police. These reports come from individual interviews held by Human Rights First in order to determine the scale of crime within migrant camps. Given that about 55,000 individuals have been returned to Mexico as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, the organization believes that those 1,314 cases are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violent crime in U.S.-Mexico border camps.

The Dangers of Mexican Regions

The United States Department of State periodically releases travel advisories on countries and regions throughout the world to warn citizens of dangers they may face when traveling there. This includes the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Matamoros, a hotspot for gathering migrants awaiting entrance into the United States. Thousands of migrants, returned to Mexico by immigration officials to await their trials, live in tented border camps in a place that the United States considers dangerous. This has led to scrutiny by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for endangering asylum seekers by sending them to places that the United States admits are dangerous.

Vulnerable Populations in Camps

Despite the fact that vulnerable populations are supposed to be exempt from the “Remain in Mexico” program, many individuals that should not have been sent back have shown up in U.S.-Mexico Border camps. The period from the programs start through June 2019 saw 13 pregnant women and 4,780 children sent to await their trials in Mexico according to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch also reports that people genuinely afraid of returning to Mexico, including kidnapping and assault victims, have been denied exemption from the Migrant Protection Protocols program and were sent back across the border anyway. Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Human Rights First and others, have all found that people including the disabled, the young, the sick and members of the LGBTQ+ community, have all been sent back to Mexico despite qualifying for an exemption from the policy.

Unsanitary Conditions Spread Disease

The unsanitary conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border have led to diseases spreading among migrants. Reportedly, there is little clean water and migrants often bathe in the Rio Grande River, which is known for containing E. coli, other bacteria and human feces. Few cases of COVID-19 have been officially recorded. However, with border camps’ proximity to COVID-19 hotspots both in the U.S. and Mexico, there is likely an abundance of unknown cases.

NGOs Assist Migrants

Immigration to the United States has basically come to a complete standstill as the border between the two countries has remained closed throughout the course of the pandemic. Because of this, NGOs have gone into border camps in order to assist those in need. The UNHRC has set up hand-washing stations and isolation areas in some migrant camps. It has also provided cash relief to migrants who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. Other organizations like Global Response Management and  Doctors Without Borders have provided medical assistance by building medical centers, distributing PPE and providing medical treatment for those infected with COVID-19.

The United States Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” policy, has without a doubt led to an increase in concerns for the health and safety of people along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the already slow asylum process to a standstill, poverty and disease has spread throughout these camps. However, NGOs like the UNHRC have been stepping up and providing assistance to those most in need.

– Aidan Sun
Photo: Flickr

University of Southern California (USC) has a course called “Innovation In Engineering and Design for Global Crises.” As part of the class, a team of USC undergraduates visited the Moria refugee camp to learn from and engage with the displaced peoples about their experiences. The need for more livable housing was the impetus for students’ project development. The result was Torch Tile — an adaptable, low-cost, user-friendly solution to the sheltering challenges of the displaced peoples in Moria.

Living Conditions of the Sprawling Moria Refugee Camp

On the eastern coast of the Greek island of Lesvos, is the Moria refugee camp. Moria is the largest refugee camp in Europe. It is the landing pad for the daily stream of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey via a harrowing boat trip across a six-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. The camp was originally designed to shelter 3,000 people. Currently, it is overflowing with over 13,000 refugees.

Tents sprawling the foothills surrounding Moria have constituted as impermanent shelters or “homes” for these refugees. Some asylum-seekers have even established residence with flowers, hand-made tandoori ovens and power cords for hijacking electricity. Despite these additions, the tents are no match for the temperature swings of Greece’s climate. In the summers, heat waves can break 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters on the island bring lasting snow from the sea moisture. Asylum-seekers can expect to wait a year before their asylum applications are processed ensuring they will experience both extreme weather conditions.

In the past, asylum-seekers have employed cardboard and tarps in an attempt to block out the extreme cold and heat. Increasing the temperature a few degrees led to refugees living in environments with dank, humid air that condenses on the tent inner walls. Running water is only available inside of Moria, and these moist environments put asylum-seekers at risk for health complications. Many suffer from pneumonia and heat stroke, which there are limited resources with which to treat.

In stepped the Torch Tile.

The Product

After over thirty different prototypes and dozens of hours of overnight testing, the team created the Torch Tile. The users’ needs were at the forefront of the creation’s design. The product comes in 36 or 55 sq. ft. sheets that can be laid side-by-side (like tiles) to fully surround a tent. The sturdy, lightweight and flexible material of the tiles is Aluminet.

The knitted screen-like material allows for airflow, reduces indoor humidity and lets light into the tent for visibility. Secured using zip ties and draped over the tent ceiling, the Torch Tile cools the interior by deflecting outdoor heat and light on warm days. Similarly, in winter weather one layers a tarp over the Torch Tile to warm the tent by 5-15 degrees by reflecting body heat inward.

Then, the team founded Torch Global Inc., a nonprofit currently fundraising to mass produce tiles for distribution. The goal is to provide tiles for those in Moria and for the unsheltered populations in Los Angeles.

Protecting Homes during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The distribution of Torch Tiles has been paramount to enabling people to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic. One Torch Tile user from Los Angeles shared, “I have COVID and can’t isolate because my tent is too hot. This product will keep my tent cooler, so I can actually stay inside and isolate.” Recently Torch Global Inc. fundraised $13,000 for the ordering of 1,500 more Torch Tiles — protection for 1,500 more people in their homes.

The collective, global mobilization and coordination of resources necessary to resolve the refugee crisis in Greece is unlikely to occur soon enough. Even when it is, situations and conflicts will likely displace more people in the future, and asylum-seekers living in tents will be inevitable. By thermo-regulating shelters, Torch Tiles alleviate one aspect of refugees’ vulnerability and address the downstream effects of displacement.

Tricia Lim Castro
Photo: Flickr