Rosaura a été détenue pendant une semaine et a subi des abus sexuels. Incapable de payer les ravisseurs pour sa libération, elle a manqué un rendez-vous vital avec les autorités américaines de l'immigration et s'est retrouvée avec de graves problèmes de santé mentale. 18 janvier 2023. © Yotibel Moreno / MSF.

Rise in kidnappings and sexual violence near US border seriously impacts health of people on the move

On Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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I was not like this before, I knew how to cope with problems, but now I find it hard," says Camila,* tears running down her face as she sits in a shelter for migrants in Matamoros, in Mexico’s Taumalipas state.

Camila’s tears are just one sign of what she has been through in recent weeks. This Nicaraguan woman carries, in both her body and her mind, the atrocities experienced in northeast Mexico by so many people seeking safety and economic security across the border in the United States. 

In August last year, Camila fled her country because of political persecution against her and her family. Other than the many illegal demands for money at checkpoints along the route, her journey went smoothly until she arrived in San Luis Potosi, in northeast Mexico. "The bus was full and they took us all off,” she says. “Only one Mexican family was left on. They put us on some buses and sent us back to Guatemala." 

Camila did not give up, but made a second attempt to reach the US. This time she managed to get as far as the city of Monterrey, where she and several others bought bus tickets to the border city of Reynosa. "During the trip we were kidnapped, and that's when the worst started,” she says. “They took us to a house where they separated us into men and women. We had to stand because there was no room for more people. 

At night some men came and took only the women out of the house. They raped us continually, one after another. They had no mercy." 

After 17 days, Camila was released in Matamoros, where she was given a bed in one of the few shelters in the city. " I came to MSF because I was feeling very bad,” she says. “I could not reconcile the moments of tranquility [with what I had experienced]. I have moments of crisis, for example when I am having a coffee and I can't hold back my tears when I remember what happened to me. The psychologists have helped me a lot. I am having treatment and I know that I still have a long way to go before I can return to how I was.”

Unfortunately, stories like Camila's are heard increasingly frequently by MSF staff in Reynosa and Matamoros. "In recent months we have seen an increase in cases related to kidnapping and sexual violence against migrants,” says MSF project coordinator Pooja Iyer. 

Our patients tell us that during captivity they are mistreated, they do not receive sufficient or quality food, and most of the women are victims of sexual abuse and violence." 

Le long de la route, ils sont victimes d'enlèvements, de viols, d'extorsion, de coups et de menaces qui portent atteinte à leur dignité et à leur bien-être physique et émotionnel. © Yotibel Moreno / MSF. 18 janvier 2023

These dangers affect migrants across the region. In Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, MSF teams have also witnessed the impact of violence and sexual violence on people on the move. Rosaura* is a Venezuelan woman who was kidnapped for a week and sexually abused by her captors. Unable to pay the kidnappers for her release, she missed a vital appointment with the U.S immigration authorities and was left with serious mental health issues. "We found her at a terminal in Rio Bravo where some of our team were distributing winter kits to deal with the cold temperatures,” says MSF logistics coordinator Gustavo Marangoni. 

When they saw us, the 15 people who had been with her for two days waiting to continue their journeys denied they were migrants, because they were afraid they would be sent back after getting so close to the border." 

The stories of Camila and Rosaura are not isolated. Every day at locations where MSF teams provide care to migrants, they hear the testimonies of people who have been victims of various types of violence. In Reynosa and Matamoros, in the last three months -of 2023 , MSF recorded a 70 per cent increase in consultations for sexual violence compared to the previous three months. 

In January 2024 alone, MSF assisted 28 survivors of sexual violence –, more than in any month in the previous year. 

From October 2023 to January 2024, MSF’s mental health and social work teams in Reynosa and Matamoros assisted 395 people who had been victims of violence, as well as 129 people who had been kidnapped and later released. 

During 2023 in Piedras Negras, MSF teams assisted 95 survivors of sexual violence and 177 people who had experienced other types of violence, including kidnappings, beatings, threats and the forced disappearance of family members due to acts of violence during their migratory journeys or at the border itself.

Crossing from Mexico to the US involves wading or swimming across the Rio Bravo, facing risks of getting swept away by the current. Many migrants are afraid to cross the river because of the risk of drowning, while others are turned back by border guards. Even those people who have appointments with immigration authorities in the US are often turned back by Mexican authorities.

These violent events have a serious impact on people's physical and emotional health,” says MSF project coordinator Ryan Ginter. 

“The consequences range from bruises and physical trauma, to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, to symptoms of anxiety, depression, acute stress and post-traumatic stress, among others. These require comprehensive and immediate attention to avoid greater impacts in the future. On arrival in the US, most migrants are turned away." 


Après avoir traversé plusieurs pays, la jungle du Darien et être arrivés d'autres continents par des routes peu sûres, hostiles et dangereuses, des personnes de diverses nationalités arrivent au Mexique pour y trouver un pays immense aux adversités infinies. © Yotibel Moreno / MSF. 18 janvier 2023.

Indefinite waiting in hostile cities  

As well as the risk of violence in northeastern Mexico, people on the move face extreme weather conditions in both winter and summer, challenges finding safe places to sleep, difficulties getting hold of food, water and hygiene items, and limited medical and psychological care. In this hostile environment, many migrants find themselves having to wait indefinitely to obtain an appointment with US immigration authorities through an online app-based application process known as ‘CBP One’. 

Th CBP One process, which is one of the few legal avenues available for migrants to access the right to asylum and protection in the US, exposes them to even greater uncertainty. Many migrants in Mexico report having to wait several months for an appointment to begin their immigration process, while others are unable even to apply.

"Many people cannot access a smartphone to carry out the procedure, or cannot pay the costs of the internet connection, while others cannot speak Spanish or have difficulties reading and writing,” says Iyer. 

Although the CBP One process undoubtedly represents a small step forward in the objective of organising migratory flows, this tool has proved inadequate for managing the processes of legal entry for people seeking welfare and security in the US.”  

Sofia* and Ligia* are sisters who fled Honduras four months ago after the murders of several family members. Each sister has four children; they decided to travel with the younger ones and leave the older ones in the care of a relative. "In Coahuila, we had to walk for more than eight hours in the cold night to reach the shelter in the chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in the city of Rio Bravo,” says Sofia, as she prepares food for her family in the shelter. “The youngest children were no longer crying – they almost couldn’t move because of the cold. We have no cell phone, no appointment and we don't know what to do." 

Given the seriousness of the situation and the violence and persecution experienced by migrants in northeast Mexico, MSF calls on Mexican and US authorities to increase their efforts to provide comprehensive care to migrants, to expand legal migration channels, and to provide better shelter, with adequate and dignified services, for people on the move. 

*Names changed to protect identities

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