Ciudad Juárez (Mexico) (AFP) - A fire started by migrants in an apparent protest against deportations killed at least 39 people at a Mexican immigration detention center near the US border, authorities said Tuesday.
The blaze broke out late Monday at the National Migration Institute (INM) facility in Ciudad Juarez, prompting the mobilization of firefighters and dozens of ambulances.
The migrants were believed to have lit the fire as a demonstration because they feared 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.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi expressed solidarity with relatives of the victims, and appealed to countries in the region "to deal in a humane, just, effective manner with growing population flows through the Americas."
A Venezuelan woman who gave her name as Viangly stood outside the immigration center, desperate for information about her 27-year-old husband who had been detained there.
"They (immigration officials) don't tell you anything.A family member can die and they don't tell you he's dead," she said, her voice cracking.
At least 39 immigrants were killed and 29 were injured, according to the INM, which said the center housed 68 adult males from Central and South America.
The dead and injured included people from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador, Mexican authorities said.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro told reporters that 28 citizens of his country were killed.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a "thorough investigation" into the fire.
He pledged "to continue working with the authorities of countries where mixed movements of people occur to establish safer, more regulated, and organized migration pathways," a spokesman said.
Tougher border restrictions
Ciudad Juarez, which neighbors El Paso, Texas, is one of the border towns where numerous undocumented migrants seeking refuge in the United States remain stranded.
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 center that caught fire, after local authorities rounded up street vendors, some of whom were foreigners.
"Deteriorating conditions in migrant facilities along the border mean vulnerable asylum seekers are in unnecessary danger," the International Rescue Committee humanitarian organization said.
"Stronger systems along Mexico's migration corridors are critical to provide asylum seekers with the protection they need," it added.
The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said the tragedy was "a reminder to the governments of the region of the importance of fixing a broken migration system and the risks of irregular migration."
President Joe Biden's administration has been hoping to stem the record tide of migrants and asylum seekers undertaking often dangerous journeys organized 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 Organization 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 UN agency.