Left in limbo: a Pakistani man has spent the last month trapped in a Mexican airport

Alejandro Ayala/Xinhua via Getty

In July, Joshua Craze wrote about how governments are using Covid-19 as a pretext for a crackdown on migration. One victim of this trend is a 34-year-old Pakistani man who has spent the last month in a Mexican airport due to restrictive and arbitrary border enforcement.

Farooq Muhammad had been living in Mexico for two years on a work permit before he traveled to Pakistan in February for what was intended to be a monthlong trip to visit relatives in the city of Multan. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, his return to Mexico was delayed until September, by which time his work permit had expired. When he finally managed to fly to Mexico City, he expected to renew his documentation upon arrival, as is normally permissible under Mexican law.

However, when Muhammad arrived at the Benito Juarez International Airport on September 9, authorities refused him entry into the country, and detained him without access to a lawyer. Muhammad, who does not speak Spanish or English, has said he was not given any reason why his entry was denied, or even provided with a translator. The official explanation for his detention is that he was the subject of a “migratory alert,” an opaque Mexican legal procedure for flagging passports on grounds the state is not required to disclose.

Muhammad has accused the Mexican authorities of attempting to pressure him into getting on a return flight, and twice physically assaulting him when he refused.

As harrowing as Muhammad’s ordeal has been, “the most concerning thing is that it’s not an unusual case,” his attorney Luis Xavier Carrancá Álvarez told me. “On the contrary, it shows a systemic practice by the migration authorities and their complete disregard for foreigners’ human rights.” 

The case has received little media attention in Mexico, and authorities have remained publicly silent on it.

Back in September, after a few days passed without hearing from Muhammad, who has no access to a mobile phone, his relatives contacted the refugee law clinic at the Ibero-American University, where Carrancá is an advocate. The clinic has previously represented migrants trapped in Mexican airports. 

Carrancá’s colleagues secured an injunction from a judge prohibiting Muhammad’s forced return to Pakistan, and finally managed to visit him in person on September 17. The lawyers have also filed a complaint regarding Muhammad’s case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a Washington-based international body set up by the Organization of American States.

Carrancá said Muhammad is being held in a waiting room lacking any natural light or ventilation, which he cannot leave except to go to the bathroom, for which he must ask a guard for permission. Muhammad doesn’t have access to a food court or airport restaurants. The only food provided by the authorities is fruit, sandwiches which he cannot eat due to Islamic dietary restrictions, and vending machine products.

Muhammad shares the room, nicknamed “La Burbuja” or “The Bubble,” with other travelers awaiting deportation. Carrancá said no social distancing or mask requirements are observed, leaving Muhammad potentially vulnerable to Covid-19 infection.

Carrancá said Muhammad is “really desperate,” and “psychologically ill from all the stress,” as well as physically emaciated. He has repeatedly requested to be detained in a jail rather than the airport.

To date, Muhammad’s lawyers have only been able to meet him in person twice, and have not otherwise communicated with him.

Muhammad’s case is in line with a new trend under Mexico’s current government. Francisco Garduño Yáñez, head of the government body which supervises migration, is an immigration hard-liner who has “been using the pandemic as a way to punish migrants,” said Carrancá. He cited as an example Garduño’s refusal to provide adequate sanitary measures in detention facilities, as a deterrent to Central Americans seeking entry into Mexico.

At least two migrants are known to have died from Covid-19 in Mexican detention facilities, said Carrancá.

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Gautama Mehta

Gautama Mehta is a reporting fellow at Coda Story.