A Discussion with Perrine Leclerc, Chief, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Field Office, Tapachula, Mexico

With: Perrine Leclerc

July 6, 2016

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in July 2016 undergraduate student Carolyn Vilter interviewed Perrine Leclerc, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (La Agencia de la ONU para los Refugiados, ACNUR) Field Office in Tapachula, Mexico. In this interview, Leclerc discusses the work of ACNUR and emphasizes the importance of enhancing Mexican civil society and government capacity-building in response to increasing migration flows.
What does ACNUR do in Tapachula?

ACNUR in Tapachula is an important field office, because we’re in a strategic organization here at the border, but also because we have a COMAR [Mexican Refugee Aid Commission/Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados] office here, of which there are only three in Mexico. We have various initiatives. First, working with ACNUR’s individuals of interest—and we now know that the majority of people coming from the Northern Triangle are fleeing persecution, violence, gangs, et cetera—so ensuring that these people have access to information, and to their right to solicit asylum. For this, we work with government and civil society.

The work of information diffusion is particularly important. For example, through the posters that you saw outside and posters which explain the process of soliciting asylum, which we put in all the shelters and detention centers in the zone we cover. We also do lots of work with training authorities to ensure that more people can identify cases that need protection and direct them to the asylum system. We’re a very small office in a large state, and the border is very porous, so it’s not enough that our office is here; we need as many people to be informed as possible.

So, through developing a network with shelters and civil society, we’re trying to ensure that there’s awareness of the issue of asylum for refugees, because the illusion that the majority of people are migrants is persisting, and few people know that the complete asylum process is available. So we’re working on this: information, access, and increasing understanding of how to solicit asylum both through direct contact with us, but also through the training and networks we have with other actors in the region. We also conduct many visits in detention centers. We also have projects to improve reception conditions—this is currently what takes up most of my time, because we’re seeing a need for greater capacity for applicants for refugee status. In Africa, we had the possibility of refugee camps; here, it’s different, and people need to figure out where to sleep while waiting on their status. There are shelters here, which used to be shelters for passing migrants but which are now also trying to shelter asylum applicants, which is something new as of some two years ago.

Currently, ACNUR is supporting the construction of a shelter to be used exclusively to receive refugee status applicants. This is necessary for several reasons. A migrant who comes for 48 hours to eat, take a shower, and continue on their way doesn’t have the same needs as someone who comes here to Tapachula, applies for asylum, and needs to stay three months to wait for their case to be resolved. They require a totally different type of attention. We’re currently working with the municipality to see if they can donate land to build a new refugee-specific shelter. We know that the normal shelter model will never be completely sufficient. Currently, 300 people can be housed in shelters in Tapachula. The necessity is much larger than that. ACNUR currently has something called the Humanitarian Assistance Program. We have a waiting room where we receive applicants and individuals interested in refugee status from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day to evaluate their cases and see if we can provide them with humanitarian aid.

In the case that the shelters can’t receive them because they’re full, or they otherwise don’t have anywhere to go, we ensure that they’re living in decent conditions, whether by giving them rent, giving them food, things like that. This represents a great deal of work for us, because we’ve seen an incredible increase in arrivals in the past few months. Incredible, incredible. We’ve increased our aid for this reason, in order to answer for the lack of capacity that exists in this region. The basic needs of an individual are to have a roof and food to eat, but beyond that when it comes to the legal processes of COMAR, individuals need legal aid but are running from persecution, and they therefore arrive with high levels of trauma and unease and require psychosocial attention as well. So we’re also working with shelters to reinforce their services with aid from lawyers to accompany cases in front of COMAR, appeal when cases are rejected, prepare for eligibility interviews, et cetera. And in the case of psychologists, we offer workshops on supporting this population. So all together, it’s a rather wide variety of projects.

When migrants come here first and explain their situation to us, we give them information about the process at COMAR; then, they go to COMAR, and COMAR either sends them to us again for housing or directly contacts housing for them. But if there isn’t availability in the shelters, COMAR reaches out to ACNUR, because they know that we have a Humanitarian Assistance Program, whereas COMAR doesn’t have the budget to give that type of support to people.

And how long does the COMAR process take?

Forty-five working days, and one additional month, more or less, to receive their permanent residency, although that is processed through the National Immigration Institute rather than COMAR.

Is it common on a global scale for ACNUR to work with or have shelters like this?

In general, ACNUR prefers to work with implementing partners, but in some cases—like in cases where an emergency has resulted so quickly that it’s not possible to identify partners—there are some countries like Jordan where ACNUR creates direct assistance programs instead. But here, we’re currently looking for partners who would be willing to come here and work on the border. Because at the end of the day, there’s a shortage of actors: we work above all with the church, which is the backbone of humanitarian aid here. But really the two international organizations here are us and IOM [International Organization for Migration]—there aren’t international NGOs, so the challenge for us for this year will be to get an implementing partner. Because we think flows are always going to be increasing, and our resources are very restricted. In June, it was remarkable; flows were about three times as high as in May, for example. So if it continues, it’s going to be complicated.

Do you have a theory as to why flows are increasing?

Surely it’s because of the worsening situation in countries of origin. Now, the situation is one of generalized violence. There are systematically persecuted profiles: young people and the LGBT population, for example. So what we’ve seen in the past few years is that the profile isn’t just men, but entire large families of up to 10, 15 people.

What do you do within the detention center?

What we do above all is dispense information about the right to solicit asylum—basically, identify people who are eligible for international protection. In the detention center, they need to explain the rights migrants have to them, but we know that in practice this is an enormous challenge. It’s written in very small print in the documents they need to sign before being deported, and they don’t understand their right to asylum, which is to say that nobody explains it to them. Although we have these posters in migrant detention centers, it’s still a complicated problem. Some people think it’s a process that resolves in two days. So we identify eligible people, direct them to the asylum application process, and ensure that this whole process works well. For example, if we identify eligible people, we send them to the responsible staff member in the detention center and then later confirm that they’ve entered the process, as a way of monitoring the system.

The thing is, someone in a detention center who wants to solicit refugee status has to stay inside the detention center for the entire required process period, roughly three months. There are some people who want to apply, but when they find out that they have to spend three months locked up, they don’t do it and prefer to sign their own deportation papers, leave, and try to apply for asylum from outside.

What’s the level of understanding of these processes? Does the majority know their rights?

No. And there’s also lots of false information circulating, so it’s important to really clarify and explain the processes.

It seems to me like the majority of the work you’ve described consists of filling in the gaps in pre-existing systems that are inadequatein doing work that other parties should really be doing. Is that the case?

Yes. It should be the responsibility of the state to ensure that all applicants for asylum at COMAR are here, have assistance, but the reality is that there’s a lack of attention to human rights, inadequate funding, so yes, basically it’s a balance between capacity building—ensuring that ACNUR doesn’t have to do the work of the state—but in some cases, you have to monitor and follow-up, and it’s really important to take that action in order to protect people in this immediate moment.

What capacity building do you do with government and other actors to improve the future situation?

We do lots of capacity-building work with migration personnel—we have a two-day workshop this week with new personnel at COMAR, and on a regular basis various times a year we work with the town government, other people involved in our population of interest, and also with personnel from the National Migration Institute.

What is the greatest challenge you face in your work here in Tapachula?

I would say this whole question of coordination between various actors. Coordination with authorities, ensuring that when they make a decision at upper levels between ACNUR and Immigration, that all these proposals and decisions are actually being implemented. This requires a lot of work, a lot of energy, and yes, lots of pressure day to day.

Do you have specific goals for the future of ACNUR here in Tapachula?

What we want to see is more actors here involved in the issue. Now, ACNUR is basically the only voice of refugees here. I think things are changing little by little, but it’s really hard to be here on the border, and it’s hard to change the MO of the authorities, of migrants themselves, of the whole world. So we’d like to have more visibility for the issue, a more collaborative relationship between all these actors, and a relationship with expert partners.

Why did ACNUR decide to establish an office in Tapachula in 2003?

We realized that the flows were getting larger, that the profile was totally different now—many children, many women, families, LGBT individuals—and we think that within this population roughly some 50 percent need international protection and less than 1 percent apply for refugee status. So it is really important for ACNUR to be present, because it’s not sufficient to do trainings and the like on a simply theoretical level; monitoring and also being here, going to the detention center—we can’t always prevent the deportation of every individual, but this type of presence at least lets us document and be there to know what’s happening, understand what the authorities’ practices are, to be able to improve our response and our negotiations with the state. This presence is fundamental to understand what’s happening and to have a concrete impact.

How many of those who solicit asylum from COMAR are approved?

This has changed a lot. There’s also this myth that COMAR is rejecting absolutely everyone, but that’s not the case when you look at the stats. In 2015, the average rate was 35 percent, but in the first months of 2016 the approval rate reached 72 percent. Which is—which is good. It’s not so bad.

Yes! We’ve spoken to migrants who’ve said, “No one’s getting approved.”

This is another thing we want to do, is publicize this rate of approval, because we think it could have an impact. People are saying that no one gets approved, but that’s not the reality. There are many obstacles—we’re always trying through our trainings to improve the process in Mexico, because we have this expertise from ACNUR’s experience in other countries —but due to the situation that exists in the countries of origin, the rate has really gone up a lot. It could always be higher still, and for that reason we have lawyers here, preparing people for interviews to avoid problems with credibility.

I wanted to ask you about your experience and motivation as an individual, too. When did you start working for ACNUR, and how have you liked it?

I began nine years ago, in 2007. I had studied law in undergraduate and then changed my mind a little and completed my graduate studies at Sciences Po, which is more focused on international relations and more focused on working with international organizations, doing more fieldwork. After—like everyone in this issue, I imagine—I did many practical experiences and internships, in many countries in the world. I interned with UNICEF, and then I was in touch with the UN, and with my profile in law and everything else I began to work with UNHCR on eligibility issues, and I have been doing so since then.

There are very few organizations in the international sphere that have a legal focus. I think that ACNUR is one of the few. It grabbed my attention for this reason. Once I began working with this more legal-focused perspective with ACNUR, I sought out more fieldwork experience, too—I’ve been in Russia, Turkey, Uganda, Chad, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and others. Many people criticize UNHCR’s mission, saying that it’s too narrow, that it should be expanded. But at the end of the day, it’s always growing into new issues with new legal precedents. I see it as something very interesting.

I think the issue of refugees is so hard to wrap your head around. Never being able to return to your country? The simple act of thinking about this, I think, could break anyone’s heart, and for this reason ACNUR’s mission is something I could keep defending forever. Because I see that it’s important to make a difference. I know that it’s unjust, that every human being should be treated equally, but given someone who flees persecution and violence and can’t return and another person who leaves for another reason, I think it makes sense that they should receive different responses.

Do you think you’ll continue working for ACNUR?

I don’t know—no, that’s a separate question. It’s complicated to work for ACNUR; we work hard. There’s a rotation rule, so it’s very hard to have a personal social life, and at the end of the day it’s a matter of choosing between career and personal life, and it’s a difficult thing. When you’re young you like, “Yes, let’s go,” but after 10 years, it’s like, “Well, I have to decide.” And it’s difficult.

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