CIUDAD, JUAJREZ, MEXICO: A fire started by migrants believed to be protesting against their expected deportation killed at least 39 people at a Mexican immigration detention centre near the US border, authorities said Tuesday.
The blaze broke out shortly before midnight at the National Migration Institute (INM) facility in Ciudad Juarez, prompting the mobilisation of firefighters and dozens of ambulances.
An AFP journalist saw forensic personnel remove a dozen bodies from the INM’s parking lot, where several other bodies were laid and covered with blankets.
The migrants started the blaze themselves as a demonstration, apparently, after learning that they would be deported, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.
"They put mats at the door of the shelter and set them on fire as a protest, and did not imagine that it would cause this terrible tragedy," he told reporters.
A heavy military and national guard presence blanketed the site early on Tuesday.
A Venezuelan woman who gave her name as Viangly stood outside the immigration centre, desperate for information about her 27-year-old husband who had been detained there.
"He was taken away in an ambulance," she told AFP, adding that her husband had documents allowing him to remain in Mexico.
"They (immigration officials) don’t tell you anything. A family member can die and they don’t tell you he’s dead," Viangly said, her voice cracking.
At least 39 immigrants were killed and 29 were injured, according to the INM, which said the centre housed 68 adult males from Central and South America.
The dead and injured identified so far included 28 Guatemalans, 13 Hondurans, 12 Venezuelans, 12 Salvadorans, one Colombian and one Ecuadorian, Mexican authorities said.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro told reporters that 28 citizens of his country were killed.
Ciudad Juarez, which neighbours El Paso, Texas, is one of the border towns where numerous undocumented migrants seeking refuge in the United States remain stranded.
"Deteriorating conditions in migrant facilities along the border mean vulnerable asylum seekers are in unnecessary danger," the International Rescue Committee humanitarian organisation said in response to the fire.
"Stronger systems along Mexico’s migration corridors are critical to providing asylum seekers with the protection they need," it added.
Fed up with waiting at the border, hundreds of the migrants attempted to storm an international bridge on March 13 but were blocked by US agents.
Numerous migrants had been detained in recent days at the detention centre that caught fire after local authorities rounded up street vendors, some of whom were foreigners.
Speaking to reporters, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Perez Cuellar insisted that "what happened in the streets has no relation to what happened" in the centre.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has been hoping to stem the record tide of migrants and asylum seekers undertaking often dangerous journeys organised by human smugglers to get to the United States.
Biden proposed new restrictions on asylum seekers in February, hoping to stifle the rush of migrants to the southern border when COVID-related controls are lifted.
The new rules say migrants who arrive at the border and simply cross into the United States will no longer be eligible for asylum.
Instead, they must first apply for asylum in one of the countries they pass through to get to the US border or apply online via a US government app.
About 200,000 people try to cross the border from Mexico into the United States each month.
Most are from Central and South America and cite poverty and violence back home when requesting asylum.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 7,600 migrants have died or disappeared in transit in the Americas since 2014.
Of those, around 4,400 people perished or went missing on the US-Mexican border crossing route, according to the United Nations agency.
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