U.S. Puts Unwitting Asylum Seekers on Flights to Guatemala

By Shani Saxon Jan 14, 2020

Dozens of Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers have been placed on chartered United States government flights to Guatemala as part of the Trump administration’s Asylum Cooperation Agreement, also known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, since it took effect in December 2019. According to The Washington Post, many of those Central-American migrants were never told where they were headed, and they had no idea what to expect when they landed.

As Colorlines previously reported, the agreement requires migrants who have crossed through Guatemala, including Salvadorans and Hondurans, to seek refuge in Guatemala with no opportunity to claim asylum in the U.S. Once they arrive in Guatemala City, The Post reports the asylum seekers receive minimal information about applying for asylum. Even worse, anyone who fails to immediately apply for asylum once they arrive in Guatemala is forced to leave the country after 72 hours. Those departures are referred to as "Voluntary Return," according to The Post:

But an Asylum Cooperation Agreement is bringing migrants to a country that is unable to provide economic and physical security for its own citizens—many of whom are themselves trying to migrate. In fiscal 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, at more than 264,000. The country has only a skeletal asylum program, with fewer than a dozen asylum officers.

Thelma Shau, who oversees migration issues for Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, told The Post that this situation is a “total disaster.”

“They arrive here without being told that Guatemala is their destination,” Shau said. “They are asked, ‘Do you want refuge here or do you want to leave?’ And they have literally minutes to decide without knowing anything about what that means.”

The Post reports that "of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the program began last month, only five have applied for asylum, according to the country’s migration agency." Human rights organizations in Guatemala confirmed to The Post that migrants are being misled and are not given enough information to make informed decisions about their next steps. Many asylum seekers, according to the newspaper, "are aware that Guatemala suffers from the same gang violence and extortion that forced them from their home countries."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sees a number of problems with the program. “UNHCR has a number of concerns regarding the Asylum Cooperation Agreement and its implementation,” Sibylla Brodzinsky, UNHCR’s regional spokesperson for Central America and Mexico, told The Post. “We have expressed these concerns to the relevant U.S. and Guatemalan authorities.”

Officials in Guatemala, however, told The Post they are providing migrants with sufficient information, but the asylum seekers are choosing to leave voluntarily. “Central American people are given comprehensive attention when they arrive in the country, and respect for their human rights is a priority,” Alejandra Mena, a spokesperson for Guatemala’s migration agency, said. “The information provided is complete for them to make a decision.”

The Department of Homeland Security has so far declined to comment on the situation in Guatemala. As The Post reports, the U.S. also has safe third country agreements in place with El Salvador and Honduras, but they haven’t officially launched.