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US: Abusive Transfers of Asylum Seekers to Guatemala

Agreement Denies Hondurans, Salvadorans Effective Protection

Two asylum seekers, one from El Salvador, one from Honduras, wait inside a migrant house in Guatemala City after being sent to Guatemala from the United States on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, under an “asylum cooperative agreement” between the two countries. © 2019 AP Photo/Oliverde Ros

(Washington, DC) – An agreement between the United States and Guatemala effectively compels Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to abandon their claims, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch said today.

The joint report by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch, “Deportation with a Layover: Failure of Protection under the US-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement,” shows that the US-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement, or ACA, does not meet the criteria in US law for a Safe Third Country Agreement that would enable Salvadorans and Hondurans to seek asylum in a safe country other than the US.

Under the agreement, the United States has rapidly transferred non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala without allowing them to lodge asylum claims in the US. Given Guatemala’s inability to provide effective protection and the risk that some transferees face the threat of serious harm either in Guatemala or after returning to their home countries, the US violates its obligation to examine their asylum claims by implementing the agreement, the report says.

Refugees International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 Hondurans and Salvadorans who had been transferred to Guatemala. They described abusive conditions at the US border before their transfer and danger, insecurity, and a lack of support upon arrival in Guatemala that made them feel pressure to return to their home countries despite fear of what they would face there.

“All the transferees we interviewed said the US never gave them an opportunity to seek asylum in the US or to explain why they fled their home countries,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the report’s authors.

A Salvadoran man said that a US Department of Homeland Security official told him “there is no asylum” and “there are no Central Americans allowed into the United States.” Two women showed Refugees International evidence of abuse by domestic partners – pictures of physical injuries from brutal beatings and a copy of a protective order from a court in El Salvador – that they said US officials at the border refused to let them present to support their claims of fear of return there.

Those interviewed said that while detained at the US border before their transfer, they were denied meaningful access to an attorney and only allowed to make between one and three rushed, non-private phone calls.

They said that when they arrived in Guatemala, they waited hours on the tarmac with no food, water, or adequate medical attention, including for those with small children. The registration process itself took a cursory two-to-three minutes, during which Guatemalan authorities did not provide any information about what would happen to them in Guatemala. Once transferees were registered at the airport, they had 72 hours to make the decision about whether they would remain in Guatemala, return to the countries they fled, or try to find refuge elsewhere.

“People transferred to Guatemala were thrust into a high-pressure situation in which they lacked adequate time and resources to make truly informed, voluntary choices about what to do,” said Rachel Schmidtke, Latin America advocate for Refugees International and another of the report’s authors.

Those interviewed said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety there because some of the gangs who threatened them had a presence or connections in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite their fear of persecution there.

“We interviewed people with well-founded fears of persecution who were not allowed to seek asylum in the United States and who believed they could not be protected in Guatemala,” said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate at Refugees International and another of the report’s authors. “The United States has shirked its responsibility and violated its international obligations by transferring people under the ACA.”

Transfers of non-Guatemalans to Guatemala under the agreement were suspended on March 16, 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that date, the US had transferred 939 people to Guatemala. Although local nongovernmental partners for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that the vast majority of transferees they interviewed had international protection concerns, only 20, about 2 percent, had applied for asylum in Guatemala.

The US and Guatemalan governments should rescind the Guatemalan agreement rather than plan for its resumption, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch said. The US should also halt plans to begin transferring non-national asylum seekers to El Salvador and Honduras under similar agreements.

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