At least 39 migrants died in a fire that broke out at an immigration detention center in a Mexican city on the US border, the Mexican government said Tuesday.
The fire broke out shortly before midnight at the National Migration Institute (INM) facility in Ciudad Juarez, prompting the mobilization of firefighters and dozens of ambulances.
An AFP journalist saw forensic personnel remove a dozen bodies from the INM's parking lot, where several other bodies were laid and covered with blankets.
"The National Migration Institute (INM) of the Interior Ministry regrets the deaths -- so far -- of 39 foreign migrants, caused by a fire," an INM statement said.
A rescuer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said there were about 70 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, at the center.
Numerous migrants have been detained in the center in recent days after local authorities rounded up street vendors, some of whom were foreigners, from the area.
A Venezuelan woman who gave her name as Viangly stood outside the immigration center, desperate for information about her 27-year-old husband who had been detained there.
"He was taken away in an ambulance," she told AFP, adding that her husband had documents allowing him to remain in Mexico.
"They (immigration officials) don't tell you anything. A family member can die and they don't tell you he's dead," Viangly said, her voice cracking.
A heavy military and national guard presence blanketed the site early on Tuesday.
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday that the blaze was started by migrants in the center protesting against their expected deportation.
"They put mats at the door of the shelter and set them on fire as a protest, and did not imagine that it would cause this terrible tragedy," he told reporters.
Tougher border restrictions
Ciudad Juarez, which neighbors El Paso, Texas, is one of the border towns where numerous undocumented migrants seeking refuge in the United States remain stranded.
Fed up with the wait, hundreds of them attempted to storm an international bridge on March 13 but were blocked by US agents.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has been hoping to stem the record tide of migrants and asylum seekers undertaking often dangerous journeys organized by human smugglers to get to the United States.
Biden proposed new restrictions on asylum seekers in February, hoping to stifle the rush of migrants to the southern border when Covid-related controls are lifted.
The new rules say migrants who arrive at the border and simply cross into the United States will no longer be eligible for asylum.
Instead, they must first apply for asylum in one of the countries they pass through to get to the US border or apply online via a US government app.
The new measures came as Biden was facing accusations from Republicans of having lost control of the border.
About 200,000 people try to cross the border from Mexico into the United States each month.
Most are from Central and South America and cite poverty and violence back home when requesting asylum.
A recent report by the International Organization for Migration said that, since 2014, some 7,661 migrants have died or disappeared en route to the United States, while 988 perished in accidents or while traveling in subhuman conditions.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Originally published on France24