The Migrant Diaries - Mexico 2017

Much of the work we do in mental health and migration involves trying to respond to the needs of hundreds or thousands of people. It can be challenging, especially in the context of emergency settings, to remember the individual stories that underlie the tragedy of forced displacement.

Here, as part of the #MHPSSMatters campaign – a collaboration between MHIN and marking Refugee Week 2017 – we are privileged to have permission to share some insights from the field by Lynne Jones. Lynne is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, researcher, and relief worker, and has worked for many years in a wide range of extreme settings.

Parts of this blog and the full diary were first published by Harvard University's FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, where Lynne is a Visiting Scientist.

We join the author at the start of the Via Crucis de Refugiados (literally ‘The Way of the Cross of Refugees,’ translated as ‘Refugee Caravan 2017’ by Pueblo Sin Fronteras). They are heading for Tijuana and the US border. The idea is simple: Central American migrants marching the length of Mexico will draw attention to their right:

to safely escape persecution in their countries, exercise their right to seek refuge through asylum, and raise awareness of the violence, human rights violations, and legal challenges they face, at home in Central America, in transit through Mexico, and upon arrival to the United States of America.

                 – from the announcement of Via Crucis on Facebook

Day 1 takes the author from Ciudad Hidalgo on the border of Guatemala and Mexico to a shelter on the edge of Tapachula. From there…


Tuesday April 11,


The shelter is completely quiet today as most people went on the march, but I have promised to talk with a young woman I saw a few days ago. Beatriz is from Honduras. It is another terrible story. She was abused repeatedly by her father as a small child and then thrown out by her mother for trying to ‘steal my husband’. She was sold into prostitution, but she somehow managed to escape and start her life again, meeting a nice man, marrying him and finding a job, and starting to study in night school.

But the gangs came and told her she belonged to them and he belonged to another territory so they could not marry and both would be killed. So they escaped to Mexico and are applying for asylum here. They like Tapachula and would like to stay. Except Beatriz misses her friends and her job and the life she made, and now she has nightmares every night about what happened as a child, and sometimes she feels quite suicidal.

“... I am afraid all the time these days, of dark places, of people following me at night, of anyone who has a tattoo...”

At least her papers are in process. Everyone I have talked to in this shelter has a similar tale: abuse as a child and then trying to make a life amidst murderous violence. Any sign that you are doing well in any conventional manner immediately makes you a target for extortion, and so you are left with no choice but to flee. The stories are as horrifying as any I have heard in any war zone, worse in some way because of the resigned acceptance with which rape and threats of execution are discussed as facts of life that must be endured.

UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency) and IOM (International Organization of Migration) apparently have broadened their terminology. They no longer draw a hard line between economic and forced migration—they talk about mixed movement, acknowledging the vulnerability and structural violence that is driving people to move. But this has not affected the apparent arbitrariness of decision making at COMAR [The Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees].

I did not do much when we met a few days ago. We talked about how horrible it was to be uprooted from home and dumped among strangers with no connections and no identity. I explained that I thought it was quite normal to grieve in such a situation but that such sadness could stir up old more painful memories. This made sense to her.

She is also a devout Catholic, so I gave her some homework to ask the priest who visits weekly where the nearest church was so she could go out and join the community there. And I brought a local friend, a Salvadorean woman who has been here a while and could give her advice about restarting in another country.

Tiny actions, we had not even started on the nightmares, but she came to see me this morning and seems transformed. She had found out about the nearest church, 10 minutes walk away, and had decided to join a dance class she saw advertised. She had met my friend and they had talked a lot and were meeting again for coffee. Meanwhile she and her husband plan more outings together like going to the park and a movie. She is sleeping better and the nightmares are less.

Friendship and connection, what a difference they make!

North America
Central America and the Caribbean
South America
Humanitarian and conflict health
Human rights
Empowerment and service user involvement
All disorders
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