The Fierce Battle for the Possibility of Refuge

In different parts of the world, organizations, social movements and, above all, ordinary people, are engaged in a fierce battle against the Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACAs) and other policies that seek to destroy asylum systems.


By: Kavita Kapur

June 25, 2020

Almost two decades ago, the United Nations decided that June 20 would be World Refugee Day. 

Although the word “refugee” is being tossed around as asylum policies and migratory flows make headlines and news segments around the world, the concept of refugee protection is surprisingly absent from the discussion.

Perhaps this is because it is a relatively intuitive concept. The idea of providing asylum to people who are forced to flee their homes can be found across different traditions and religions since ancient times. At its core, asylum offers an alternative to the situation of war, or other threats that people may be facing in their homes, by offering the possibility of finding security in a new place.

After World War II, the countries of the world came together to form the United Nations and established the international framework for the protection of refugees. Through an international treaty adopted in 1951, countries agreed to offer protection to those forced to flee their home countries because of persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or other social characteristics.

In the words of the poet Warsan Shire: ” you only leave home/ when home won’t let you stay.” And that is when international protection for refugees comes into play, to ensure that another country opens its doors and lets in those in need of protection.

For more than half a century, countries have implemented a range of mechanisms and procedures, each with its own nuances and shortcomings, to ensure international protection for refugees. Recently, however, such protection has become the target of a concerted attack, facing blows from regressive policies around the world.

ACAs: The Door to International Protection Slammed Shut

In the Americas, the Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACAs) are one of the most powerful weapons used to dismantle international protection for refugees. In 2019, under explicit pressure from the Trump Administration, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador each signed these ACAs with the United States, effectively closing the door to international protection for the region’s most vulnerable refugees.

The terms of the agreements are uniform: when a refugee arrives at the United States border seeking international protection, the United States can transfer that person to one of the three countries with which a ACA exists, so that the receiving country assumes responsibility for providing international protection. Or at least that is the theory, because in reality they have an extremely limited capacity to provide such protection.

All three are known to be countries from which people are fleeing in record numbers due to widespread persecution and systematic violations of their basic rights. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are characterized by some of the highest murder rates in the world, widespread gender-based violence, and increasing aggression and control by criminal and transnational gangs. According to statistics from the UN Refugee Agency, more than 180,000 people fled the three countries in 2019 to seek asylum in the United States, placing them among the top ten countries of origin for people seeking refuge in the U.S.

The ACAs do not consider whether the three countries lack an asylum system capable of adequately processing applications for international protection. UN statistics confirm that El Salvador has a total population of 52 refugees, Honduras has 76, and Guatemala has 416; while the countries receive 33, 110, and 632 asylum seekers with pending cases, respectively. This is in stark contrast to the United States, which, according to the same source, hosts more than 340,000 refugees and more than 840,000 asylum seekers with pending cases. With these numbers, it is clear that Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are not capable of providing international protection to refugees arriving in the United States.

It is important to note that the ACAs expressly recognize that this mechanism cannot be used to return a refugee to his or her country of origin; that is, Guatemalan individuals cannot be returned to Guatemala, as this would violate the very essence of the protection legally recognized as a principle of non-refoulement. In practice, however, ACAs result in refugees returning to places where their lives are threatened and, in most cases, finding no possibilities in Central American countries, these people are forced to return to their countries of origin.

On the one hand, many of the same gangs and drug trafficking networks are transnational and operate in all three countries, allowing them to track and find their victims even across national borders. On the other hand, a mobility agreement between Central American countries allows people to move between these countries without a visa or passport, making it easier for individual abusers or corrupt officials to pursue and attack refugees fleeing a country – say Honduras – from within neighboring countries – in this case, Guatemala or El Salvador.

People who were transferred under ACAs not only face profound and ongoing risks to their lives and safety, but are also left completely unprotected. The government of Guatemala, the only country where the agreements have been implemented to date, provides absolutely no assistance to the people it receives under the agreement. Instead, it is religious and civil society organizations that have taken on the task of providing housing, food, and other basic services and needs for this population.

According to the New York Times, during the months the United States and Guatemala implemented the agreement, the United States transferred more than 900 asylum seekers to Guatemala. More than 95% of these people were eventually forced to return to the countries from which they had fled to save their lives.

In the current context of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, the implementation of the ACA with Guatemala has been temporarily put on hold, while authorities have taken advantage of the pause to adjust the final details of the legal frameworks to implement the agreement with Honduras and El Salvador. Implementation of these agreements is expected to resume once the mobility restrictions implemented as a public health measure are lifted.

Defending International Protection: A Fight for Security

In different parts of the world, organizations, social movements and, above all, ordinary people, are engaged in a fierce battle against the ACAs and other policies that seek to destroy asylum systems.

From within Guatemala, the Human Rights Ombudsman filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court challenging the ACAs even before the agreement was signed. For their part, local organizations such as Casa del Migrante and Refugio de la Niñez are providing shelter, food and counseling to asylum seekers who have been transferred to Guatemala without sufficient information. Other organizations in Guatemala, through the Grupo Articulador de la Sociedad Civil en Materia Migratoria (Civil Society Coordinating Group on Migration Issues), have undertaken a constant defense against the agreements.

In the United States, the ACLU, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Center for Justice and Refugee Studies, and Human Rights First are vigorously litigating the legality of the ACAs in U.S. federal courts. Organizations such as Refugees International and Human Rights Watch have conducted field research, interviews, and in-depth analysis to document the effects of the agreement. And concerned citizens are raising their voices.

There are even transnational efforts, such as the one being coordinated by the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), that link the voices of Central America and the United States to raise their voices against the agreements.

Perhaps most powerfully, however, people transferred to Guatemala under the ACAs have told their stories. They have told journalists, researchers, and advocates how the door to international protection was closed on their journey and their lives, and in doing so, have fueled the movement against these agreements.

Regardless of where they are or what strategies they use, and even though most of these people do not know each other, these and many other groups and individuals are united by a common purpose. They fight to ensure that refugees can still find safety in the world. They fight to preserve the possibility of protection. They struggle to ensure that the responsibility to provide protection remains part of our collective consciousness.

And for the sake of our humanity, we must ensure that they win.

Kavita Kapur is an attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law, where she works on issues of human mobility in Central America and Mexico.



This article was first published in the Columns section of El Faro

PH: EFE_ Esteban Biba