JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The long journey to the U.S. border is fraught with danger, and that’s particularly true for migrant women, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The New York-based nonprofit has a presence in several Mexican cities and says more than half of the migrant women it meets report being the victim of violence. Often, that violence is of a sexual nature, said Lucero Espindola, HIAS coordinator in Juarez.
“The most common form of violence women suffer is sexual violence,” Espindola said. “They have a right to denounce the violence, but most are just looking for psychological support.”
Scholarly articles such as “We All Get Raped” have documented the phenomenon for decades. The culprits often are smugglers. The violence can happen on the street, in houses where smugglers “store” migrants until it’s safe for them to move them closer to the U.S. border, in isolated camps or even on the streets.
But random criminals and even their traveling partners are also committing violence against the female migrants, the HIAS coordinator says. That’s because prolonged travel and frustration over hardships encountered can lead to tension among couples.
HIAS and other international aid organizations on Wednesday gathered at Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center to spread the word in the migrant community that help is available. HIAS has five specialists in Juarez ready to refer the women to local agencies that offer shelter, mental health services, and legal assistance.
The most common need is emotional support and guidance. “The women are reluctant to prosecute. The violence happened in a place they left behind and they don’t want to go back. Also, they want to move on” to their destination, Espindola said.
A lot of the violence is reported to HIAS by coordinators working in the southern state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala. By the time they arrive, the migrants have crossed several borders in desolate areas controlled by smugglers and dealt with numerous hardships such as crossing wide rivers and dense jungles. Extortion is rife and migrants who don’t pay up are the most vulnerable to violence, advocates and Mexican officials have told Border Report.
HIAS works on getting migrant women to shelters in Juarez given that many come to the border carrying children. They also procure supplies and personal hygiene products for them, Espindola said.
Efforts are ongoing to provide regular visits by health and medical care professionals to those shelters, said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua Population Council that runs the Migrant Assistance Center.
HIAS and other international nonprofits such as the Center of Justice for Women and agencies such as the Organization for International Migration and the UN Refugee Agency are also helping Juarez officials manage the humanitarian crisis.
“It’s hard to say how many migrants we have at any given time because you have people at the shelters, people coming in and people, including Mexican and Central American citizens, being expelled from the United States every day,” Valenzuela said. “Not all are in shelters and, yes, we do have some people on the streets.”
Valenzuela said the last few years of heightened migration has taught border officials that a good rule of thumb for estimating the migrant population is to multiply by three or by five the number of people in shelters. The variant depends on the intensity of the current surge.
“Right now, that can be between 6,000 and 10,000 people,” he said.
Talking openly with strangers about violence suffered on the road can be difficult. Border Report tried to talk to women who said they were at the center to seek emotional or psychological help, but they declined the interview.
Silvia, a woman from Colima, Mexico, who arrived alone in Juarez on Wednesday with the intent of crossing into the United States, says she always asks a lot of questions before joining a group. Speaking off camera, she said she has learned how to read people’s intentions and stay safe during previous trips to look for work north of the border.