An agreement between the U.S. and Guatemala allows for non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to be effectively deported to Guatemala without the possibility of lodging asylum claims in the U.S., a report has recently showed. The report was published on May 19th by Human Rights Watch and Refugees International. It shows that the U.S.-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA), breaks U.S. law, as Guatemala does not fit the necessary requirements for a “safe third country”. As a result, many asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras arrive in the U.S. only to be rapidly transferred to Guatemala. Many return to their home countries in spite of their original reasons for leaving. Human Rights Watch and Refugees International thus urge the U.S. to change the agreement. It is currently set to resume after the coronavirus crisis is dealt with, allowing for greater international movement again.
Human Rights Watch have called the agreement “abusive”, citing evidence of the awful conditions asylum seekers are kept in; at the U.S. border, refugees reportedly had to put up with ‘receiving inedible frozen food, having no access to showers for several days at a time, being unable to sleep because lights were constantly left on, being denied medical care, and being subjected to insults and degrading treatment.’
Furthermore, upon arrival in Guatemala, the process for gaining asylum can stretch on for months. With an overly bureaucratic system requiring authorisation for asylum from high-up officials, the procedure is often blocked. As of March 2020, a backlog of some 713 cases was reported. To make matters worse, the asylum seekers interviewed by partners of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that they did not feel able to stay in Guatemala. They cited ‘their inability to support themselves there, distrust of the authorities, and Guatemala’s proximity to their home countries, fearing that their persecutors could still reach them.’
The ACA has not been active since March 16, 2020, due to the coronavirus crisis. The appearance of the report from Human Rights Watch and Refugees International is thus timely. Clearly, the current situation – whereby the U.S. are dismissing refugees and dumping them on a country unable and unequipped to deal with them – is untenable, and quite simply, illegal. Descriptions of the conditions that refugees are put in are harrowing. Being made to wait for hours on the tarmac with no food or water, with small children, is inhumane. Possibly the most worrying thing to read in the report is its final sentence, which describes (and condemns) similar deals with Honduras and El Salvador that are soon due to be ratified.
The ACA with Guatemala has been in place since November 2019. Between then, and the mid-March suspension, a reported 939 Honduran or Salvadoran asylum seekers were transferred to Guatemala. The vast majority were women and children. The move is typical of Trump’s increasingly isolationist foreign policy. Indeed, if the aforementioned deals with Honduras and El Salvador were put into effect, the U.S. would essentially bounce back a large proportion of Central American asylum seekers to different Central American countries. It would be both ludicrous as well as detrimental to those fleeing threats that are often spread across such countries.
The coronavirus crisis has bought some time for human rights organisations. Fortunately, the report that has come out should create reaction and indignation amongst the international community. One would particularly hope the UN picks up the case, especially considering its legal implications. In this way, such a dangerous agreement can be sanctioned before it continues to harm asylum seekers in the future.
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