Trapped as fire raged: deadly perils in Mexico for migrants escaping climate catastrophe | Honduras

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Higinio Alberto Ramírez nearly died in a devastating fire at a migrant center in Mexico after rising seas forced him from Honduras – but the climate crisis is not recognized as grounds for asylum

It was a Sunday night in March when Yessica García received a WhatsApp message from her partner saying that finally, six weeks after leaving Honduras, he would be crossing over the Mexico-US border.

Higinio Alberto Ramírez had spent the previous fortnight in Ciudad Juárez waiting for his parents to remortgage their house in Cedeño, a coastal town that is disappearing under rising sea levels, to raise the money demanded by the smugglers for the final leg of the journey. He was worried about the family’s mounting debts but the 28-year-old’s spirits were high.

“My love, they are going to move me, don’t worry, stay calm, everything will be fine … take care of our little girl … when I get to the USA I will call you,” Ramírez wrote, just after 9pm on 26 March. The plan was to reach his aunt in Houston, where he hoped to find a decent job to support his family.

A few hours later, however, Mexican immigration officials detained Ramírez and several others just metres from the border. They were taken to a migrant detention centre where he was told that he would be deported to Honduras. “I was sad because of the money situation, but was happy that I would see him again soon,” said García, 24.

Ramírez didn’t make it.

A girl lights candle during a vigil for the victims of the immigration center fire. Photograph: Christian Chavez/AP

Early on Tuesday 28 March, the aunt in Houston called his parents in Cedeño, frantic over new reports of a fire at the detention centre. As the family started calling hospitals, Ramírez’s name and photograph flashed across the television on a list of 13 dead Hondurans.

Forty people died in the fire that broke out around 9.30pm on Monday 27 March after immigration officials ignored pleas to unlock the door, leaving 67 men from Central and South America trapped inside.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 25 years working in migration in Mexico … creating chaos to wear people down is the policy here – but leaving so many people to die … it’s devastating,” said Gretchen Kuhner, the director of Institute for Women in Migration (Imumi), a non-profit supporting survivors.

But Ramírez was not among the dead. He woke up days later in a Mexico City hospital with third-degree burns, unable to speak or walk or recall what had happened. His grieving family only found out he was alive when they received a call asking for consent so surgeons could operate to save his left hand.

Higinio with Yessica. Photograph: Courtesy Higinio Ramírez Torres

García and Estela Torres, Ramírez’s mother, closed their small restaurant and flew to Mexico City to take care of him. It was their first time leaving Honduras.

More than six months later, Ramírez is still dealing with neurological effects of smoke inhalation. Doctors do not know if the short-term memory loss will ever improve, or whether he will regain movement in his hand – despite five operations. The nightmares have lessened but he cannot talk about what happened.

Ramírez wants to go home, where things are familiar, and to see his daughter, who recently turned three. But the shrimp nursery where he and his father worked was last month hit by another tidal wave, which left much of the building underwater.

The climate crisis poses an existential threat to coastal communities like Cedeño, where at least 300 metres of land – and with it scores of hotels, restaurants, shops and homes – have disappeared under water in the past decade, amid increasingly frequent and destructive tidal floods and storm surges.

But escape from climate catastrophe is not recognized as grounds for asylum under international law, and there was no legal pathway for Ramírez – or anyone fleeing rising sea level, floods, drought or wildfires – to seek refuge in the US. That’s why he ended up in Ciudad Juárez beholden to smugglers.

“The only real chance to have a legal pathway is the asylum system, and the path to asylum is incredibly narrow,” said Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola).

But now, thanks to the deadly fire, Ramírez has a chance of entering the US legally by obtaining humanitarian parole – a discretionary temporary visa he would not have qualified for in March. Several other survivors have been granted humanitarian parole with their family members.

“Maybe I should go to the States, find a job and help my family. I don’t know what to do,” said Ramírez, who speaks slowly, struggling to process questions and find the words. The family’s debts are rising, and compensation from the Mexican government could take years. It’s unclear whether he’ll ever be fit to work again.

García recently went back to Honduras alone, leaving Ramírez with his mother in Mexico City, unable to decide whether to go home or go north.

Higinio Ramírez, Higinio Alberto’s father, at the shrimp farm where both worked. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian
Higinio Ramírez Ortega takes care of corn and green bean plants. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

“If we’d been able to get the money sooner, he wouldn’t have been there on that day and my son wouldn’t be brain-damaged,” said Torres, wiping away tears with her T-shirt. “To go back to Cedeño now would mean my son’s sacrifice was for nothing.”

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Cedeño was once a thriving tourist destination thanks to abundant fish stocks and golden beaches, a place where everyone – directly or indirectly – lived from the ocean.

The Gulf of Fonseca has always been prone to flooding because of its proximity to the coast and estuaries, but the climate crisis and environmental degradation caused by industrialised farming – particularly the widespread destruction of mangroves by the shrimp industry – have depleted fish stocks and left communities more vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge.

Stocks are so low that some fishermen have had their boats confiscated after straying into Nicaraguan waters in hope of finding fish. Others have turned to shrimp-farming, the country’s fifth largest export industry, with major markets including the EU, UK, US, Mexico and Taiwan.

Ramírez started working at a shrimp nursery in 2017, where his father, also called Higinio (and known as Don Higinio) was a supervisor. The coastline was already shrinking, but two blocks of small businesses and houses still separated the nursery from the ocean, so Ramírez wasn’t worried. The work was tedious, but it was stable, with plenty of overtime. After hours, he played football with friends and watched Real Madrid on cable.

In early 2020, Ramírez took out a $3,000 bank loan to fix the leaky roof on the house he shared with García, who was pregnant. His parents also borrowed money to buy a plot of land and build a small house. The monthly payments were affordable, and life was comfortable.

Remains of one of Cedeño’s shrimp farms damaged by rising sea levels. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

But the extra shifts started drying up in late 2021 after a tidal wave damaged part of the nursery, flooding several tanks of larvae. Then came another surge and another, and by the end of last year, the street outside was under water, and half the nursery unusable. Three of the town’s eight shrimp nurseries have been destroyed by the sea.

“There was no more overtime, and we barely had enough money to buy the basics like nappies and milk for our daughter. We never imagined that the sea would come so fast,” said García. “It’s the only reason Higinio migrated: it felt like our only option.”

“The sea ruined everything. And no one was coming to help us,” said his father, Don Higinio.

María Raquel Estrada, 39, a resident of Cedeño, in her house, destroyed by the latest rise in sea level. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

Today, Cedeño and its people are disappearing. A hundred or so houses and businesses have been washed away or significantly damaged, and most underground wells have been contaminated with seawater. The beachfront restaurants and hotels are all underwater, and tourists now go to a nearby town where the coastal erosion is slower. The town’s primary school flooded so often that it was abandoned amid fears that a tidal wave could drown the children.

More than 10% of the population has already left for the US, according to the town president, Saúl Zamora. “It’s very sad, but people have no alternative … we used to live from the sea, but now we’re vulnerable to it,” he said.

“The climate crisis is contributing to food insecurity and forced migration, and we’re finding more and more ghost communities with only old people left,” said Víctor Bocanegra from a local marine conservation and environmental justice organization, known by its acronym Coddeffagolf. “For most young people it’s a question of when they’ll migrate, not if.”

An abandoned primary school in Cedeño. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

Climate breakdown, environmental degradation and disasters due to natural hazards are profoundly reshaping contemporary migration patterns worldwide, according to the UN network on migration.

In 2022, a record 32.6 million people were newly displaced by disasters such as floods, drought and earthquakes. Slow-onset climate impacts such as coastal erosion, sea level rise, ocean acidification, glacier melting, desertification, and ecosystem loss also factor in migration decisions but are much harder to quantify.

Central America – a thin strip of land sandwiched between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and Honduras is one of the region’s poorest and most insecure countries.

The insider of the damaged primary school. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch wrecked large swaths of Central America, leaving at least 8,000 people dead and another million homeless and landless in Honduras alone. As a result, the US granted temporary protected status (TPS) to eligible undocumented Hondurans already in the country, giving them permission to work and protection from deportation – but no pathway for permanent residence.

Almost 57,000 Hondurans still have Mitch-related TPS, but the special status has never been designated for other environmental or climate disasters – not even Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck less than two weeks apart in late 2020, and displaced almost a million people in Honduras.

Then, like now, the only option for climate migrants hoping to seek refuge in the US is to risk crossing the border.

“Climate migration is leaving Honduras without its population,” said Ian Fry, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change after a fact-finding mission to Honduras in September. “We must ensure that people displaced across international borders due to climate change have the same rights as refugees.”

Yessica Yessenia García Galindo, 24, Higinio Alberto’s wife, shows a family picture. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian
Yessica Yessenia García Galindo, 24, and Yessica Daniela Ramírez García, 3, Higinio Alberto’s wife and daughter. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

Climate shocks often expose – and are exacerbated by – weak governance, unchecked extractivism and corruption, all of which worsened in Honduras after a 2009 coup.

For the people of Honduras, the decision to migrate comes down to a combination of social, political, security, economic, environmental and demographic drivers. Sometimes, leaving feels like the only option.

Early this year, the family decided Ramírez would go first, followed by his father. At home, the women would keep the family afloat with the front yard eatery they had opened after the sea first damaged the nursery. A local coyote offered to smuggle Ramírez across the border for $12,000, to be paid in instalments upon arrival. He left, with 12 others, on 14 February: Valentine’s Day.

The overland route through Mexico is one of the world’s most perilous migration corridors, where corrupt officials work in cahoots with criminal gangs. It was nonetheless relatively straightforward for Ramírez, who travelled by car through Guatemala and Belize to Cancún, and then flew to Ciudad Juárez – but only after his aunt in Houston wired $1,100 for the flight, an extra expense the family had not expected. At the border, the group was locked in a safe house until their relatives could come up with an additional $3,000. The final bill was $18,000, a huge amount for the family, but it was too late to turn back.

Yessica and her daughter in Higinio’s parents’ house. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

The detention centre in Ciudad Juárez was already pretty full when Ramírez arrived, but people kept coming. It was late afternoon on Monday 27 March when two dozen or so handcuffed Venezuelans – who had been violently detained in a raid by local police and immigration officials – were brought in. Tensions had been running high in the city as thousands of people trying to reach the US were stuck at the border due to Covid-era bans and new asylum policies.

They were upset. It was hot, overcrowded, and there was not enough food or water. The guards released some migrants, but only, it has been alleged, those who could pay a “fee”.

Ramírez does not recall – or is not able to put into words – the events leading up to the fire but Kevin Cardona, a 25-year-old survivor from Guatemala also receiving medical care in Mexico, told the Guardian some Venezuelans were involved in an angry exchange with the guards, and threatened to start a fire. Others placed mattresses against the walls. It’s unclear who started the fire, but the flames spread fast and the guards did not intervene. One guard said “good luck” before walking away, leaving 67 men trapped in the flames, according to a report by the national human rights commission (CNDH).

“We tried to fill a bucket in the bathroom, but there was only a trickle of water. We were all shouting, ‘Let us out – unlock the door,’” said Cardona, who recalls raising his arms to protect his face before passing out. He regained consciousness in hospital 25 days later with third-degree burns on his face, torso and arms. The surgeons were unable to save his right hand or ear.

Fifteen women who were detained separately were let out and survived.

A view of Cedeño beach. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

This was not the first time migrants had lit a fire to protest against poor conditions and abuse at detention centres – which have multiplied amid growing pressure and resources from the US for Mexico to detain and deport more migrants. Civil society groups have documented and filed complaints to the CNDH for more than 20 years, which has issued more than 60 recommendations related to poor conditions, lack of due process, torture and deaths in the migrant detention centres.

“No one listened, nothing changed, no one cared. I feel so guilty, what more could we have done because this fire, these deaths, were both preventable and predictable,” said Kuhner, of Imumi, the support group.

Since the Ciudad Juárez fire, 33 small detention centres in Mexico have been closed. Seventeen larger ones remain open, but detainee numbers are way down – in large part due to a supreme court ruling in March limiting administrative detentions to 36 hours. A senate investigation in Mexico is under way, and several people are facing criminal charges, including the director of the INM, who has denied any wrongdoing and continues in post. One lawmaker has called the fire a “state crime”.

In the US, nothing changed.

Yessenia and Yessica Daniela at the beach at home. Photograph: Daniele Volpe/The Guardian

“We’re going to keep getting more of these sort of deadly incidents, because more people are migrating who are being channelled into the hands of smugglers or more dangerous routes, and we’re diverting people into the hands of security agencies who are either trained for something close to combat, or they’re corrupt, or both,” said Isacson of Wola. “We [the US] still believe that making the experience miserable is a way to deter migrants.”

Honduras contributes less than 0.05% to global greenhouse gases but, as the oceans and atmosphere get hotter, sea-level rise, super storms, inland flooding and drought are expected to worsen across the region. The number of climate refugees trying to make it to the US will almost certainly increase over coming months as the first climate-heating El Niño event since 2016 is expected to fuel more extreme weather that threatens lives and livelihoods.

In Cedeño, García’s house is perilously close to the ocean and the flooded shrimp nursery. She feels guilty for leaving Ramírez but also relieved to be home with their daughter. “The fire changed our lives forever, it’s honestly a nightmare, he’s not the same man. I have to find work and raise our daughter, but the sea is eating the land so fast, it won’t be long before it takes our house.

“One day, Cedeño will be gone.”

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