By Christine Murray
MEXICO CITY, Aug 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexican authorities do not know the nationality of hundreds of identified foreign trafficking victims, according to a government watchdog, raising fears that vulnerable U.S.-bound migrants are being left stranded.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly from Central America, end up in Mexico each year either on route to the United States or after being sent to dangerous border towns to await U.S. asylum hearings under a policy of President Donald Trump.
Among them are victims of human trafficking identified by authorities but about whom they lack the most basic information such as their citizenship, according to a government human rights ombudsman.
Without that and other data, Mexico will struggle to identify and protect victims, said Yuriria Alvarez, head of the National Human Rights Commission's (CNDH) anti-trafficking program.
"How do you design preventative policies if you don't know who your victims are?," Alvarez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
"How do you do investigations to collaborate with other countries if you don't know what countries they're from?"
Between June 2012 and July 2017, state and federal prosecutors' offices identified more than 650 foreign trafficking victims in Mexico but later could only provide the nationalities of 57 percent of them, the CNDH said.
Activists and academics say the real number of migrants trafficked in Mexico could be much higher.
Alvarez said prosecutors were overworked and that anti-trafficking units tasked with processing dozens of victims were often made up of just one or two people.
The Interior Ministry said in an emailed statement it was working on a national anti-trafficking plan and was "taking action to not just protect and prevent human trafficking, but other crimes that can badly affect migrants."
Mexico has stepped up efforts to stop migrants reaching the U.S. border since Trump's administration threatened the country with tariffs.
It deported almost 20,000 migrants in June, the highest monthly figure since 2006, according to government statistics.
The country also deployed its National Guard to police migrants while promising to crack down on human trafficking.
Some fear the emphasis on enforcement, particularly without reliable victim data, is placing vulnerable migrants at risk.
"Right now Mexico is focusing entirely on detaining and deporting the highest number of people," said Gretchen Kuhner, cofounder of the Institute for Women in Migration.
"They're not doing the screening necessary to figure out whether people are in need of international protection or whether they have been crime victims."
In one case, a Venezuelan woman released from a Mexican prison in July 2018 after being legally recognized as a trafficking victim was immediately sent to an immigration detention center, according NGO Sin Fronteras, which represented the woman.
The U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report for 2019 said officials and NGOs had expressed concern that humanitarian visas were not granted as often as they should be, partly due to a failure to identify victims and waiting times.
Mexico's immigration authority did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Christine Murray, editing by Tom Finn and Chris Micahud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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