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Refugees looking for a working SIM card across the border

Ana* and her three-year-old son arrived at the shelter for migrant and refugee women in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey in early October. Each morning, the 14 women at the shelter — mostly from El Salvador and Honduras — share the household chores: sweeping, cooking and babysitting the children of their comrades who have casual jobs to save enough money to enter the United States.

Most of them, traveling alone with as many as three children, were unable to communicate with their families for days after crossing Mexico’s southern border. The lack of a local SIM card, they said, exacerbated the uncertainty and anxiety of their trip.

For a family crossing the border, a working phone is vital. It allows asylum seekers to stay connected with family, receive money and access critical information for their journey. But refugees and asylum seekers face huge challenges in getting those phones to work as the logistics of mobile networks work against them. The result is a constant battle, with refugees swapping SIM cards and grappling with telecoms in an effort to create a safer migration journey for themselves and their families.

Ana lost contact with her family after crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border. She didn’t know how to change a SIM card and couldn’t find a place to charge her phone, which was empty in Guatemala.

“My family hadn’t heard from me. Once at the shelter I went out and found a little shop where I had to pay 15 pesos an hour to charge it and bought a chip for 80 pesos. Then I called my family,” explains Ana.

Due to the loss of mobile coverage when entering Mexico, people in transit cannot be monitored and guided by their support network. While telecommunications infrastructure has expanded across borders with expensive international roaming plans, people trying to move freely across those same borders have limited access to mobile services.

Vladimir Cortés is the digital rights program officer in the Mexico and Central America office of Article 19, a nonprofit organization focused on freedom of expression. Cortés explains that governments, multinational telecommunications companies, regulators and international organizations could ensure continuity of access to mobile services for people in migration.

“International organizations can articulate these different actors to ensure mobile network coverage,” Cortés says. “There is an important opportunity to recognize the phenomenon that currently exists and the level of protection that states can guarantee.”

Six months ago, Ana and her son left their home in Choluteca, Honduras, after receiving threats from the people who kidnapped and killed her 14-year-old daughter Gabriela*. Throughout the journey, Ana, striving to build a safe life with her son in Los Angeles, relied on Google Maps to check her location and WhatsApp or Facebook to communicate with her family.

“In some parts there was a signal and in others not. When there was no internet, I was left with nothing,” says 37-year-old Ana, while her son watches SpongeBob square pants on her Samsung Galaxy S6.

Using GPS applications and instant messaging apps – mainly Facebook and WhatsApp – refugees can orient themselves and participate in online migrant networks that can give them a greater sense of community and security. Some women at the shelter said it is difficult to trust information available online because they are aware of online scams falsely promising visa facilitation and transportation assistance.

Some of these online scams have been linked to serious criminal activities such as kidnapping and human trafficking. Diana González and Juan Manuel Casanueva, researchers at SocialTIC, a Mexican nonprofit digital security organization, has several connectivity risks on Mexico’s southern border, such as identity theft and extortion.

“The dangers are basically linked to two: identity theft for extortion matters, which means that certain information can be used to contact their families and ask for money,” explains Casanueva. “And the other one isn’t all digital… it’s the lack of communication. If they are victims of other types of danger, they will not be able to communicate with a support network.”

The women in the shelter often verify information online with their comrades or other offline sources, such as shelter staff or migrant rights groups, because they know that Facebook is being used to spread misinformation and fake news.

“Saying that Facebook is bad or WhatsApp is bad doesn’t apply. It’s all there is,” Casanueva says. “The question to be asked in these spaces is how can these people have the right information, as well as how risks that arise on these platforms, such as identity theft for extortion and scam issues, criminal networks and possibly even risks prevent. kidnappings and a lot of fake news.”

Ana limits her mobile use to texting her family, finding information about border crossings, and watching cartoons with her son. Masha and the bear is her favorite because, she says, “it helps distract her mind.”

Mary left El Salvador with her three children, ages two, five, and eight, after being blackmailed at the pizzeria she owned, and like Ana, she doesn’t like to use her Huawei Y7P unless it’s out of necessity.

“The truth is I don’t use the phone much more than the girls watch videos to amuse themselves. I just want to know how my father and brothers are, and if my brother who is in the United States is going to send me money,” said Mary, who withheld her full name for her own protection.

For the women in shelters, the priority is to earn more money so that they can find safer ways to cross the road. If they could, many took the bus instead of walking, or stayed in hotels instead of shelters, to protect their children during their journey to the US-Mexico border.

Esther Nohemí Álvarez lent her Huawei phone to her 15-year-old daughter, who started showing symptoms of depression. It was 2019 and the Migration Protection Protocol, a Trump-era policy known as “Stay in Mexico,” forced thousands of asylum seekers arrive at the southern border of the US to remain in Mexico pending their US hearings.

Álvarez’s daughter grabbed her mother’s phone and did TikTok dance challenges with other girls at the shelter. That same phone allowed her to keep in touch with her mother in Monterrey and her father in Virginia as she crossed the US-Mexico border with the help of a smuggler in April this year.

“As an unaccompanied minor, immigration detained her and they contacted her father. She had memorized her father’s number in case her cell phone was taken,” says Álvarez. “She was there for about 25 days and they had her call three times to contact her father.”

Of all the risks that occurred to Álvarez when she decided to send her daughter alone after her asylum application was rejected, digital risks were her least concern, let alone government oversight.

But earlier this year, the Mexican Senate passed a law requiring mobile users to register their biometrics in a government database in order to obtain a SIM card. The law will reportedly fight organized crime and reduce racketeering and kidnapping, although a similar project conducted between 2008 and 2011 only saw an increase in racketeering.

Digital rights groups challenging the law confirm that users’ sensitive personal information is at risk. Although the law is currently indefinitely suspended by the Supreme Court, Cortés explains that its implementation would lead to greater violations of the rights of migrants, who are already being prosecuted by the Mexican National Institute of Migration and other government actors.

“The registration of the card is not the only problem. The other problem is the provision of biometric data. Authoritarian countries can use this as a way to control and undermine people’s privacy,” Cortés added.

The first time Álvarez and her daughter tried to cross Ciudad Miguel Alemán, across the border from Roma, Texas, they were held for a week in the heeleras, the infamous cold detention cells of the Customs and Border Protection. They were deported through Nuevo Laredo – a border town that has seen a wave of influx drug cartel-related violence — more than 150 kilometers from their original point of entry. It was her cell phone that allowed Álvarez to locate herself on a map and seek help.

As the US government deploys new technologies to monitor and track migrants, they do not deter asylum-seeking women. Even though they have to wait longer in Monterrey until they find it safe to cross, returning home is no longer an option.

“We are crossing the border. That’s why I work here [in Monterrey] to save money,” Mary says, as two of her children run around the table. “If we don’t make it, we’ll stay here, because I can’t go back to my country.”

*Some names in this story have been changed to protect resources from possible retaliation.

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