MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico has almost entirely cleared out government migrant centers over the past five weeks to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, returning most of the occupants to their countries of origin, official data showed on Sunday.
In a statement, the National Migration Institute (INM) said that since March 21, in order to comply with health and safety guidelines, it had been removing migrants from its 65 migrant facilities, which held 3,759 people last month.
In the intervening weeks, Mexico has returned 3,653 migrants to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by road and air, with the result that only 106 people remain in the centers, it said.
The institute's migrant centers and shelters have a total capacity of 8,524 spaces, the INM said.
Victor Clark Alfaro, a migration expert at San Diego State University, said the announcement went hand in hand with the Mexican government's readiness to keep migrant numbers in check under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Today, Mexico's policy is to contain and deport," he said.
There are dozens of other shelters run by a variety of religious and non-governmental organizations throughout the country that continue to harbor migrants.
Among those who remained in the INM centers were migrants awaiting the outcome of asylum requests or judicial hearings, and others who had expressly sought permission to stay, a migration official said.
The vast majority of those sent back were migrants detained by authorities because they were in Mexico illegally, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some no longer wished to stay in centers because of the risk of coronavirus infection, the official added.
Most of the migrants passing through Mexico to reach the U.S. border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
More than 80 Guatemalan migrants deported to their homeland from the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Reporting by Dave Graham and Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)