TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant.
As a chill rain fell, the dust that coated everyone and everything in the open-air stadium turned to mud Thursday, making the already miserable conditions worse. On one side of the complex, a mud pit grew where people took outdoor showers next to a line of foul-smelling portable toilets.
The one large wedding-style tent pitched in the middle of a sports field and several smaller ones with a capacity for just a few hundred people were far from adequate for the swelling number of migrants who keep arriving daily. The vast majority of the migrants were camped in makeshift enclosures made of lashed blankets and sheets of plastic or flimsy tents. Another 200 people slept on sidewalks because they couldn't find space in the complex or decided it was more comfortable outside.
"The truth is there is no room there inside. We asked yesterday," said Astrid Yajaira of Sonsonante, El Salvador, who spent the night with three friends on a sidewalk in front of a warehouse across the street from the stadium. She had a sore throat and had hoped to find shelter inside.
The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, said it was "deeply concerned" for the well-being of more than 1,000 migrant children waiting in Tijuana or still moving north through Mexico. According to local officials, of the more than 6,150 migrants at the shelter as of Wednesday, 1,068 were children.
"These children have limited access to many of the essential services they need for their well-being, including nutrition, education, psychosocial support and health care," UNICEF said in a statement Wednesday. Making the situation worse, the agency's workers had to remove the coloring books, crayons and few other materials they had for children late Wednesday, because the agency lost its space on a baseball field to the arrival of more migrants.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission also urged the government to act Thursday, noting that the sports complex was only planned to house 3,500 migrants and now had nearly twice that many.
"It's unmanageable," said Edgar Corzo, who heads the commission's migrant rights division. The overcrowding "can produce all kinds of infections, all kinds of things can spread and we have four cases of chicken pox. They are contained but it's a risk."
As night fell, authorities began moving about 200 migrants to a new shelter farther from the border.
Miguel Angel Luna Biffano, a health volunteer with the Nazarene Church Compassion Ministries, which has been accompanying the caravan since the migrants crossed into southern Mexico, said his aid group was dealing with lice and nit infestations as well as many respiratory infections. In the tropical south they had mostly treated dehydration and feet damaged and blistered from walking hundreds of miles.
"The overcrowding here causes them to get into places where they shouldn't like under the bleachers" where it's filthy, Luna said. "There's overcrowding and very few hygiene norms. ... With the water and the cold there are going to be too many infections, a lot of fevers. There is going to be a need for antibiotics."
On Wednesday, a group of migrant volunteers joined municipal workers in bagging up garbage.
Wearing latex gloves, Darwin Doanin Bardales said he had offered to help because the unsanitary conditions were a health risk.
"If we let this garbage pile up, it will make us sicker than we already are," the 19-year-old Honduran said. "There are a lot of us who are already infected with cough, colds. ... If we let the garbage pile up it will put the children at risk, and all of us here."
Before the rain began, the Tijuana government distributed sheets of plastic to help the migrants prepare their makeshift shelters of intricately hung blankets and tarps. Tijuana officials have said they are working to open a new shelter, but they haven't said when or where, though it was likely to be much further from the border.
As rain pelted the area on Thursday, Alex Mendes gingerly picked up his small sopping wet tent and moved it to one side. He spread a large sheet of black plastic under it and then proceeded to completely wrap the tent in hopes that would keep him from another wet, sleepless night.
"It's a day's work but I don't want to get wet," the 29-year-old Honduran said of the 150 pesos ($7.50) he spent on the plastic.
Mendes, who had just started working as a waiter in a local restaurant a day earlier, proudly showed his new Mexican humanitarian visa that allows him to work legally. At first he was happy to hear the city planned to open a new shelter, until he was told it wouldn't be nearby. "I'll stay here for work," he said.
Luna, the health volunteer, said opening another shelter could help, but he wasn't sure how many of the migrants would go, especially if, as it's been rumored, it is located far from the border.
"The thing is, they don't like to separate from the larger group and the border here," he said, noting that the migrants feared being tricked and deported. "They prefer to suffer to be here."
Associated Press writers Jorge Barrera and Sofia Ortega in Mexico City contributed to this report.