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Guatemala's "embryonic" asylum system lacks capacity to serve as safe U.S. partner, experts say

The acting secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, visited Guatemala this week to discuss the implementation of a so-called 'safe third country' agreement to reduce the avalanche of asylum cases at the border. But experts wonder if a poor country, ravaged by violence like Guatemala, is an appropriate immigration partner.
2 Ago 2019 – 05:52 PM EDT
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President Donald Trump, walks to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, seated right, and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019. Trump announced that Guatemala is signing an agreement to restrict asylum applications to the U.S. from Central America. Crédito: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Guatemala’s immigration authority lacks the capacity to handle a potential surge in asylum claims under a proposed ‘safe third country’ agreement with the United States, according to immigration officials and experts.

It’s asylum section has only four officers and hasn’t resolved a case this year, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Guatemala. The office received only 262 asylum requests in 2018 and 204 so far in 2019, with 423 cases awaiting a decision.

“It’s a really embryonic asylum system,” said Susan Fratzke, a former official in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration who is now a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI).

The US and Guatemala signed a safe third country agreement last week that would require asylum-seekers traveling through the Central American country to first seek protection there, a deal that could drastically limit U.S. asylum eligibility to thousands of would-be migrants from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador.

“We’re in a very rushed situation and we have very few people to handle the cases. We are charging our batteries for what’s coming,” said a staff member in the national Office of Human Rights who asked to remain anonymous.

While Guatemala is signatory of international refugee conventions and created its own asylum system in 2001, it receives so few applications that the commission that adjudicates cases rarely meets, according to international experts who note the pressing nature of other national priorities such as combating poverty, unemployment, insecurity, organized crime, gang violence, and corruption.

The Trump administration recognized as much this week during a visit to Guatemala by acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. In a statement published on the U.S. embassy website on Wednesday, ambassador Luis Arreaga noted the need for “enhanced capacity”, adding that “the United States continues to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to reform its asylum system and could, subject to the President’s approval, provide more enhanced support to Guatemala’s refugee protection system.”

The Trump administration is seeking ways to ease the wave of migrants flooding the U.S. immigration system at its southern border, although many questions remain about how the agreement will be executed. President Donald Trump has hailed the deal with Guatemala, saying it will “put the coyotes and smugglers out of business.” The two countries had been negotiating over it for months, and Trump threatened to impose tariffs or other punitive measures on Guatemala if it didn’t reach a deal.

Under a safe third country agreement, migrants fleeing their countries would have to request asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. In Guatemala’s case that could mean thousands of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador fleeing gang violence. Critics have noted that Guatemala suffers similar gang violence as those countries. They also warn that gangs in Central America have transnational ties and someone fleeing Honduras or El Salvador could easily find themselves at risk from the gang affiliates in Guatemala.

How safe is Guatemala?

In theory, the third safe country concept requires that the host nation be able to provide protection to asylum seekers from fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. “It’s insane to suggest that Guatemala is capable of ensuring the safety and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. It’s asylum system is rudimentary at best,” said Adriana Beltran, head of a Citizen Security Program at the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) , focusing on violence prevention, and police and judicial reform in Central America.

The agreement does not apply to Guatemalans who currently account for a large share of migrants seeking to enter the United States. Since October of last year alone, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended or deemed inadmissible for entry more than 250,000 Guatemalans attempting to enter the United States illegally, according to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala.

UNHCR has expressed its concerns about U.S. asylum restrictions and has offered to provide assistance. “We understand that the U.S. asylum system is under significant strain. And we are ready to play a constructive role if needed in helping alleviate this strain,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said last month, prior to the announcement of the safe third country agreement. Denying the opportunity to apply to asylum seekers who do not arrive directly from their country of origin "will put vulnerable families at risk ... [and] ... undermine efforts by countries across the region to devise the coherent, collective responses that are needed,” he added.

UNHCR spokesperson, Sibylla Brodzinsky, told Univision this week that it was not party to the agreement and was waiting to see details of how it would be implemented. “There are such limited numbers of asylum seekers in Guatemala that can be processed right now. Such new and small system can easily become overwhelmed,” she said.

Third safe countries have been implemented in other parts of the world, including the European Union’s efforts to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis. But they normally occur between countries “with strong, robust asylum systems or with common standards,” said Fratzke. She added that was “questionable in the case of Guatemala and the United States.”

Like many, she suspected the agreement was motivated more by the Trump administration’s desire to send a message to deter would-be migrants, as it was about the actual creation of a working asylum system in Guatemala. But she questioned if it would work in practice. “Even if there is an agreement on the books, there are always resourceful people who will try to find ways around it,” she said, such as coyotes operating smuggling routes through the desert or by sea, to avoid detection at the border.