The Cruelest Measures to Stop Migration

The new agreements between the US and Central America represent a clear violation of the rights of the most vulnerable.
By: Claudia Paz y Paz

December 23, 2019

On November 19, 2019 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adopted regulations that initiated the implementation of the announced Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACA), which to date have been entered into with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Through these agreements, the U.S. Government characterizes Central American countries under the figure of “safe third country” in order to limit the eligibility for asylum in the United States.

Since their implementation, the transfer of at least 24 Central Americans, including Salvadoran and Honduran nationals, to Guatemala has been documented. The media has also warned of the arrival of the first returned family units returned.

Despite the fact that the full consequences of the ACAs are still being revealed, the agreements affect the most vulnerable men, women and children in the world, while threatening the fundamental values of our humanity. By generating even more pressure on the weak asylum systems of the countries in the region, the agreements disregard the structural issues that drive mobility and undermine international protection.

More than 60 years ago, in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, the international community came together to create an international framework for the protection of the most vulnerable people around the world through legal categories that would ensure that a door would always be open for those forced to flee persecution.

Today, with new crises emerging throughout Latin America and the world, the agreements between the United States and Central America turn their backs on that international consensus and almost completely close one of the most important doors for the protection of humanity. The agreements prevent protection in the United States of vulnerable people of all nationalities and force them to seek protection in countries where most will be unsafe: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

With these agreements, the States of the Central American region, in complicity with the US Government, are not only failing to comply with their obligation to guarantee the human rights of migrants, but are also exposing them, in a cruel and inhumane manner, to risks such as sexual violence, extortion, kidnapping and murder as a measure to discourage migration and hinder the right of these people to seek protection.

At the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a regional organization with nearly three decades of experience defending human rights in Latin America, we know first-hand the situation of violence and poverty that forces people in this region to migrate. To illustrate, in Guatemala, the enormous challenges in the fight against corruption and impunity, the growing presence of transnational criminal groups and drug trafficking gangs along the border with Mexico, as well as the alarming rates of violence against women demonstrate that the government has failed in its obligation to protect even its own population. If further evidence is needed, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported a dramatic increase in the number of Guatemalans who have fled the country in recent years in order to seek international protection from the multiple forms of violence the country faces.

To gauge Guatemala’s security conditions, it is sufficient to know that more than 33,000 Guatemalans fled their country and applied for asylum in the United States in 2018 and more than 85,000 Guatemalan asylum applications are pending worldwide. This trend is also spreading internally. By the end of 2017, more than 242,200 Guatemalans were internally displaced.

Guatemala’s conditions of insecurity and institutional weakness are replicated in neighboring countries. Our years of work with human rights defenders in the Central American region confirm unequivocally that neither Guatemala, Honduras nor El Salvador have the conditions necessary to receive and care for the thousands of people seeking refuge who will be transferred as a result of the ACAs.

In El Salvador, homicide rates were the second highest in Latin America in 2018, with 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. While the government has reported a decrease in homicides during 2019, there are reports of an increase in forced disappearances.

Coupled with this, corruption, the inability and unwillingness to fight powerful gangs, and violence against women and people from the LGBTQ+ community is rampant. In the last year, more than one-third of women suffered some form of sexual or gender-based violence. Feminicides continue unabated, with 365 women killed in 2018 and, in 2017, the feminicide rate was the highest in the region according to the United Nations. For these cases, impunity is the norm.

In the case of Honduras, at least 190,000 people have been internally displaced due to organized crime and gang violence. There, collusion between organized crime and corrupt authorities is systematic. For example, last October, President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother was convicted of drug trafficking by a New York jury, while the president himself was labeled a co-conspirator under evidence that he had received money from a drug cartel for his presidential campaign.

In Honduras, moreover, human rights defenders, land and territory defenders, communications professionals, journalists and, in general, people who raise their dissident voices against the government, face threats, attacks and killings in retaliation for their work.

In addition to these risks, Central American governments do not have the capacity to guarantee effective protection for migrants. Their asylum systems are weak. Between 2001 and 2017, Guatemala processed only 800 applications in total. For their part, Honduran reception programs have proven incapable of meeting the needs of even the flows that existed before the agreements were signed, and in the case of El Salvador, the operational capacity is very limited to receive and process applications for international protection. In fact, the Salvadoran agency responsible for reviewing asylum applications has only one official and, by 2018, only four asylum applications were submitted, three of which have been rejected and a fourth which is still being examined.

These governments also do not have comprehensive programs to support the reintegration of migrants into society and ensure that they do not face the same risks that compelled them to leave. Proof of this is that the Guatemalan government has not assumed any responsibility for the people it has received under the agreement. Instead, the work of providing food, shelter, and psychological care, among other basic care measures, has been assumed in its entirety by civil society organizations, thus filling the great protection gap left by the authorities.

Neither Guatemala, Honduras, nor El Salvador have the conditions necessary to receive and attend to the thousands of people seeking refuge who will be transferred as a result of the agreements.

Although the idea of a “safe third country” is not explicitly recognized in international law, according to UNHCR, the classification of a country within this category should consider whether it respects “human rights and the rule of law, its record of not producing refugees, its ratification and compliance with human rights instruments.” In addition, countries must have conditions that ensure a fair and efficient procedure for access to effective international protection

Currently, the weak institutions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras do not meet these conditions. The lack of funding for asylum systems and the deficiencies of their international protection systems create a situation of uncertainty for those returned to these countries. None of the receiving countries have the capacity to offer adequate living conditions, access to services and basic rights. The immaturity of their legal frameworks and procedures and the limited experience of their governments in processing applications for international protection raise serious questions about the possibility of obtaining effective protection.

In accordance with international law, refugees have the right to seek protection once they have left their countries of origin. Unfortunately, the countries of northern Central America cannot guarantee this protection. Added to the corruption, impunity, and institutional erosion they face, the agreements signed with the United States will increase the levels of insecurity in already unstable countries.

Ultimately, the agreements undermine the fundamental principles of the rule of law and threaten the dignity of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, while failing to reduce the number of people seeking international protection. These agreements are intended to be a short-term solution that will instead create long-term challenges and exacerbate problems such as violence, corruption, and human and drug trafficking in a region where human rights violations often go unpunished.

Closing the borders and outsourcing the processes for processing asylum applications is not a solution. A genuine response to the region’s mobility situation requires a sustained, multilateral effort that addresses the structural causes of forced migration and duly incorporates international laws and standards designed to protect the dignity of people forced to flee for their lives.

Claudia Paz y Paz is the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) for Central America and Mexico.

This text was first published in the blog Migrados of El País.

PH: EFE_ Esteban Biba