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MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo continues to be a dangerous place for asylum seekers waiting to cross into the United States after being sent back to await the outcome of their petitions, according to a report released Tuesday.
Doctors Without Borders said that last September, it treated 41 people who were in the city under the program known as “remain in Mexico,” and that 18 of them, or 44%, reported being kidnapped recently. An additional 12% were victims of attempted kidnappings, the report said.
The following month, the figure of those saying they had been kidnapped increased to 75%, according to the report, and some of them were forced to work for their abductors.
“Just like the asylum seekers waiting their turn to enter the U.S. to initiate their claims, those who have been returned to Mexico while waiting for their application to be resolved also face serious risks and are systematically exposed to violence and potentially traumatic events," Doctors Without Borders said.
Asked about the report Tuesday at a news conference in Washington, the acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, disputed the finding that 75% of their patients had been kidnapped after being turned away from the southwest U.S. border.
“That's not what we're hearing and that's not what we're seeing,” he said.
Morgan said the U.S. is working with the Mexican government to encourage migrants to go to shelters instead of the makeshift tent cities that have cropped up along the Mexican side of the border. And he broadly defended U.S. policies that have turned tens of thousands of people away as they sought to enter the United States in recent months.
Nuevo Laredo is one of seven border points where the United States is returning asylum seekers under the program, which launched in January 2019 and has expanded practically the length of the frontier. Tamaulipas state, where Nuevo Laredo is located, is a stronghold of cartel activity.
Other Mexican cities where asylum seekers are made to wait for months and then sent back under the program are also considered dangerous places rife with gang activity.
The Doctors Without Borders report also argued that migration policies in the United States, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are failing to assist and protect migrants and undoing longstanding practices on asylum and refuge.
The report said “things have only gotten worse” since 2017 with many thousands of people becoming mired in a “vicious cycle” when they seek protection but are sent back to the violence and poverty that they fled back home.
Washington has also pressured Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to do more to slow the northward flow.
The Mexican government says its policies aim to ensure safe, regular and orderly migration with strict respect for human rights.
But it has faced some criticism even from party allies.
Porfirio Muñoz Ledo of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's Morena party was among lawmakers who toured a Mexican migrant detention center on Monday.
“I spoke with several migrants who are mistreated, and the rights of children are violated,” Muñoz tweeted.
Tonatiuh Guillén, López Obrador’s former head of the National Immigration Institute, said in a recent interview that effectively a zone has been created from the United States to Honduras “where the role of the states in protection of people is being diluted” even as people continue to flee the Northern Triangle.
Guillén resigned last year as Mexico began to crack down on irregular migration through its territory in response to pressure and threats from the Trump administration.
Other international groups such as the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration have expressed similar concerns about regional migration policies.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.