On the banks of the Rio Grande, on the Mexican side of the border between the American state of Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, is a situation that by any account was a COVID-19 nightmare waiting to happen. In tents crowded along the river near the town of Matamoros, around 1,500 migrants await their chance to have a hearing that will allow them to enter the United States as asylum-seekers. You might worry, as I did, that the close quarters of the camp would make these already vulnerable people even more vulnerable to the coronavirus. But so far, case numbers have been limited, and people have stayed healthy. How have they done it?
The migrants at Matamoros are fleeing political situations and violence that in many other cases would make them refugees, but they are not refugees due to the complicated ramifications of the United States’ governments Migrant Protection Protocols and decisions made by the Mexican government. That means they do not have access to the complex international system that supports refugees. But they do have people in their corner. Medical care in the camp is run by a relatively tiny American NGO, Global Response Management, which was founded in 2017 by Pete Reed, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, and Alex Potter, a seasoned nurse and photojournalist, who had been in Iraq and saw the need for a humanitarian organization willing to work in areas of war and conflict. After time spent working in Bangladesh and Yemen, the organization acquired a reputation for going in where few others would. When GRM executive director Helen Perry first went to Matamoros, she found hundreds of people camped along the Rio Grande, within sight of the U.S. border, with no access to water, toilets, or medical care. Because the state of Tamaulipas is controlled by drug cartels, not many other organizations had been willing to take on the risk of working there, Perry told me, but that is exactly the kind of situation GRM exists to ameliorate.