A fire at a migration center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico left at least 39 people dead and 29 others injured after migrants facing deportation set their mattresses ablaze, authorities said on Tuesday. The facility lies near the United States and Mexico border, across El Paso, Texas, a major crossing point for migrants seeking asylum.
The fire broke out late Monday at the National Migration Institute (INM) after authorities picked up a group of migrants from the city streets and detained them. Tensions had been high between authorities and migrants in the area.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said authorities “do not know exactly the names and nationalities of those who unfortunately lost their lives,” but believes “migrants from Central America and same from Venezuela were in that shelter.”
“This had to do with a protest that they started after, we assume, they found out that they were going to be deported, and as a protest, they put mattresses from the shelter at the door of the shelter, and they set fire to them. They did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible accident.”
On March 9th, an open letter protesting the criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers was published by more than 30 migrant shelters and advocacy organizations in Ciudad Juarez. The groups stated that police were improperly asking people about their immigration status on the street.
The city’s federal deputy, Andrea Chavez, tweeted about the incident on Tuesday, expressing her condolences.
“It is with deep sadness and grief that we learned of the fire that occurred inside the INM in Ciudad Juárez. We will wait for the official information and, from this moment on, we send our condolences to the families of the migrants. FGR initiated the investigation.”
Reuters reported a grim scene of several body bags lined up outside the facility. The incident is one of the worst fires of recent years in Mexico.
Venezuelan national Viangly Infante told Reuters about her experience witnessing the fire and its aftermath. Her husband was inside the detention center in a holding cell during the fire but survived it by dousing himself in water and pressing up against a door.
“I was here since one in the afternoon waiting for the father of my children, and when 10 p.m. rolled around, smoke started coming out from everywhere.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson called the tragedy “heartbreaking” in a tweet.
“The tragic loss of life in Ciudad Juárez is heartbreaking. Our prayers are with those who lost their lives, their loved ones, and those still fighting for their lives. The United States has been in touch with Mexican officials and stands ready to provide any needed support.”
Mexico is the world’s third most popular destination for asylum seekers, after the United States and Germany. However, it mainly serves as a transit point for those aiming to enter the U.S.
The Biden administration has heightened efforts to curb the number of migrants crossing the border after seeing a record level of crossings in recent years. Mexico has also stepped up its efforts to stem the flow of migration into the U.S., causing it to struggle with overcrowding in its facilities, which house tens of thousands of migrants.
In February, the administration proposed a new rule that would broadly prohibit migrants from applying for asylum in the U.S. without first applying for asylum in the countries they transit through on their way to the shared border.
There are more than 2,200 people in Ciudad Juarez’s shelters and more migrants outside shelters from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and El Salvador, according to The Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at email@example.com.