On the Border: Tapachula’s Migrant Sex Workers

In Tapachula, a small Mexican town bordering Guatemala, a Doctors of the World volunteer named Jimena has created a support system for Central American migrant sex workers.

 

Each night Jimena seeks out these women in the bars and on the streets of the border town. She listens to the women’s stories, their struggles, and the hardships they face everyday. And she understands, because Jimena was once a migrant sex worker.

 

SRH - Mexico

Doctors of the World has been working in the Tapachula area of Southern Mexico for over 20 years, where many Honduran, El Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants cross the dangerous border into Mexico. Many are fleeing the violence and instability of their home countries with hopes of making it to the United States. But most are intercepted along the way and sent back to detention centers in Tapachula to await deportation. According to the UN Refugee Agency, half a million migrants cross Mexico’s southern border every year.

SRH - Mexico

While Mexico boasts a number of public healthcare programs, it does not guarantee care to all. For example, it is all but impossible to obtain medical care without Mexico-issued identification papers. Migrants often wait months before being granted papers – if they receive them at all. Which means that, should something serious occur, neither they nor their families can go to a doctor, visit the hospital, or be taken to the emergency room. In addition, public health officials often refuse to treat migrants or their family members, leaving them vulnerable to poor health and chronic medical conditions.

In December 2015, DotW’s Antoine Bogaerts visited Tapachula and our team on the ground. While there, he got a firsthand look at our work with the migrant community and our efforts to improve their access to medical care and treatment while in Mexico. He also met Maria, a woman from Central America whose sick baby died because she couldn’t visit a doctor or hospital.

Sadly, Maria’s story is not unusual. In Tapachula, Doctors of the World provides medical, psychological, and advocacy support to migrant women and their families who are often barred from accessing public services in Mexico – including medical care and health facilities. Migrant sex workers are particularly at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and syphilis, and our team is available throughout the night to provide the women with free contraceptives and to follow up on any medical issues they have.

Our team also works alongside former sex workers – women like Jimena. Known as “peer educators” they train and educate other migrant sex workers about safe sex and other health-related issues. DotW works alongside the peer educators advising them on how best to support, mobilize and represent their community. There has been growing concern among human rights activists that the Mexican authorities are persecuting instead of protecting migrants, many of whom qualify as refugees or asylum seekers.

While most eyes are tuned to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, it is worth remembering that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants much closer to whom who are in need of care.