Crossing borders, refugees scramble for a practical SIM card

Anna * and her three-year-old son arrived in early October at a shelter for migrant and refugee women in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. Every morning, 14 women, mainly in shelters from El Salvador and Honduras, share the housework. That is, to save enough money to travel to the United States, clean, cook, and babysitter the children of your fellow countrymen who are doing informal work.

The majority of them traveled alone with as many as three children and spent days without communication with their families after crossing the southern border of Mexico. They said that not having a local SIM card exacerbated the uncertainty and anxiety of their journey.

Working phones are very important for cross-border families. This allows asylum seekers to stay connected with their families, receive money and access important travel information. However, refugees and asylum seekers face the major challenge of keeping these phones working as the logistics of mobile networks work against them. As a result, refugees are in constant struggle to exchange SIM cards, wrestle with telecom, and create safer migration journeys for themselves and their families.

Anna lost contact with her family after crossing the border between Guatemala and Mexico. She didn’t know how to replace the SIM card and couldn’t find a place to charge her phone that ran out of battery in Guatemala.

“My family didn’t get in touch with me. When I got to the shelter, I went out and found a small shop where I had to pay 15 pesos per hour to charge and bought a tip of 80 pesos. Then I called my family, “Ana explains.

Losing mobile coverage when entering Mexico will prevent people on the move from being monitored and accompanied by a support network. Telecommunications infrastructure is expanding across borders with expensive international roaming plans, but people trying to move freely across the same borders have limited access to mobile services.

Vladimir Cortez is Head of Digital Rights Program for Article 19 Mexico and Central America Offices, a non-profit organization focused on freedom of expression. Cortez explains that governments, multinational telecommunications companies, regulators, and international organizations can establish continued access to mobile services for migrants.

“International organizations can clarify these various parties to ensure coverage of mobile networks,” says Cortés. “There is an important opportunity to recognize what is happening now and the level of protection that the state can guarantee.”

Six months ago, Anna and her son left their home in Choluteca, Honduras, after being threatened by those who kidnapped and killed their 14-year-old daughter Gabriella *. Aspiring to live a safe life with her son in Los Angeles throughout the trip, Anna used Google Maps to locate herself and used WhatsApp or Facebook to contact her family. ..

“There were parts where there was a signal and parts where there was no signal. When there was no internet, I was left with nothing,” says 37-year-old Anna while her son is watching. Spongebob Spongebob With her Samsung Galaxy S6.

GPS applications and instant messaging apps (mainly Facebook and WhatsApp) allow refugees to direct themselves, join online migrant networks and increase their sense of community and security. Some shelter women have said it is difficult to trust the information available online because they are aware of online scams that falsely promise visa facilitation and transportation assistance.

Some of these online scams are associated with serious criminal activity such as kidnapping and trafficking. Diana González and Juan Manuel Casanueva, SocialTIC, Mexico Digital Security Nonprofit, Various Identifications Connection risk At the southern border of Mexico, such as theft of personal information and blackmail.

“Danger is basically related to two things: theft of personal information in extortion issues. That is, you can use some information to contact your family and ask for money,” explains Casanueva. To do. “And the other isn’t completely digital … it’s a lack of communication. If you’re a victim of other types of danger, you can’t communicate with the support network.”

Shelter women often know that Facebook is being used to disseminate false information and fake news, so they are often other offline, such as companiers and shelter staff and immigrant rights groups. Check the source for online information.

“It doesn’t mean that Facebook is bad or WhatsApp is bad. That’s all there is,” says Casanueva. “The questions that should be asked in these spaces are how these people can get the right information, and these platforms, such as blackmail, fraud, criminal networks, and even the theft of personal information for risk issues. How to prevent the risks that occur in. Abduction, and lots of fake news. “

Ana limits its mobile use to sending messages to family members, searching for information about border crossings, and watching cartoons with his son. Masha and the bear She is her favorite because it “helps to distract” her mind.

Mary left El Salvador with her three children, ages 2, 5, and 8, after being blackmailed at her pizzeria. Like Anna, I don’t like to use the Huawei Y7P unless I need it.

“The truth is, I’m not using much more phones than girls use it to watch videos to entertain themselves. What’s going on with my dad and siblings, and the United States I just want to know if my brother in the country will send me money, “says Mary, who withheld her full name to protect herself.

For women in shelters, the priority is to make more money so that they can find safer crossing methods. When they were created, many used to take a bus instead of walking or stay in a hotel instead of a shelter to protect their children during their journey to the US-Mexico border.

Esther Nohemí Álvarez lent a Huawei phone to her 15-year-old daughter who was beginning to show symptoms of depression.It was 2019, when the Immigration Protocol, a Trump-era policy also known as “staying in Mexico,” was enforced. Thousands of asylum seekers Arrived at the southern border of the United States to stay in Mexico to wait for a US hearing.

Alvarez’s daughter picked up her mother’s phone and took a TikTok dance challenge with another girl at the shelter. The same phone allowed her to keep in touch with her mother in Monterrey and her father in Virginia, crossing the US-Mexico border in April of this year with the help of smugglers.

“As an unaccompanied minor, immigrants detained her and they contacted her father. She had her father’s number remembered in case the cell phone was taken away. “Alvarez says. “She was there for about 25 days, and they forgave her like three phone calls to contact her dad.”

Of all the risks that Alvarez had in mind when he decided to send his daughter alone after the asylum claim was rejected, digital risk was the least of her concerns, not to mention government oversight. rice field.

However, earlier this year, the Mexican Senate passed a law requiring mobile users to register biometric data in government databases in order to obtain SIM cards. Similar projects carried out between 2008 and 2011 saw only an increase in blackmail, but the law is said to combat organized crime and reduce blackmail and kidnapping.

Digital rights groups that challenge the law have confirmed that sensitive personal information of users is at risk. The law is currently suspended indefinitely by the Supreme Court, but its enforcement will result in greater infringement of immigrant rights already facing persecution by officials from the National Institute of Immigration and other states in Mexico. Explain that it will occur.

“Card registration isn’t the only issue. Another issue is the delivery of biometric data. Authoritarian countries can use this as a way to manage and undermine people’s privacy,” Cortez said. Adds.

When Alvarez and her daughter first tried to cross the border from Rome, Texas, across Ciudad Miguel Alemanni, they spent a week. hieleras, Customs and Border Protection’s infamous cold detention cell.They were deported via Nuevo Laredo — soaring in border cities Drug cartel-related violence — More than 150 kilometers away from the original entrance. It was her cell phone that Alvarez was able to locate himself on the map and ask for help.

Asylum seekers are not stopped by the US government as they deploy new technologies to monitor and track immigrants. Even if you have to wait long before you think you can safely cross in Monterey, going home is no longer an option.

“We’re going to cross the border, so I’m working here [in Monterrey] To save money, “says Mary, with two kids running around the table. “If we don’t accomplish that, I can’t return to my country, so we’ll stay here.”

* Some names in this story have been changed to protect the source from possible retaliation. Crossing borders, refugees scramble for a practical SIM card

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