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“Unsafe, Unsanitary, Inhumane”: PHR Medical Expert’s Observations at the Matamoros Migrant Encampment

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable; increased risk of preterm births, stillbirths, and maternal mortality.

Sondra Crosby, MD, a Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) medical expert and associate professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, recently participated in a humanitarian visit to a large migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, directly across the U.S.-Mexico border from Brownsville, Texas. More than 500 migrants were estimated to be living in the encampment as of September 15, the date of Dr. Crosby’s visit. The camp’s population includes pregnant women and people returned to Mexico under the U.S. administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols.

Dr. Crosby submitted the following observations to PHR and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Border Rights Center and ACLU of Texas:

“As a medical professional, I am extremely alarmed by the unsafe, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions in the large and growing migrant encampment in Matamoros. This is a refugee camp in the making, mere steps from the United States – but one with no form of medical services, security, or reliable food and potable water supply for the more than 500 people living there.

“The conditions I witnessed at the Matamoros encampment include: 

  • Lack of access to medical care, including prenatal or obstetric care;
  • Insufficient access to food and increasing risk of anemia and malnutrition;
  • Inadequate access to clean, potable water, which places pregnant women especially at increased risk of dehydration, heat stroke, and diarrheal diseases;
  • Insufficient infrastructure, such as latrines, to ensure basic sanitary conditions;
  • Overcrowded living conditions in the open air that increase the risk of infectious diseases (respiratory diseases, measles, rubella, tuberculosis, and diarrheal diseases).

“Pregnancy and delivery pose inherent medical risks to the mother and baby, and pregnant migrants and refugees are a particularly vulnerable population at increased risk. The conditions I saw in the encampment greatly increase the risk for largely preventable adverse maternal and newborn outcomes. There is a significantly increased risk of preterm birth, low-birth-weight infants, stillbirths, and maternal mortality. These types of adverse birth outcomes can have long-lasting repercussions on the health and development of newborns well into adulthood. Furthermore, pregnant women could be at heightened risk of gender-based and other forms of violence. No human being should be subjected to these types of conditions.

“As a doctor, a human rights advocate, and a U.S. citizen, I am deeply disturbed at how recent U.S. immigration polices have created this crisis on the border. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as ‘Remain in Mexico,’ force asylum seekers to await the processing of their asylum claims in Mexico, instead of in safe conditions within the United States. While there are supposed to be certain protections for groups that are in particularly vulnerable situations, what I saw at Matamoros shows that this is not the case.

“I call on the U.S. government to immediately uphold the legal right to seek asylum and stop returning pregnant women and other vulnerable people to Mexico.”

Dr. Crosby submitted her observations in a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, prepared by the ACLU Border Rights Center and ACLU of Texas.

The ACLU letter seeks “an unequivocal commitment from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to cease subjecting vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, to the MPP policy, and an immediate investigation by the Inspector General into the treatment of pregnant women in MPP.” 

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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