US sends first Honduran to Guatemala under new asylum deal

Rights groups slam controversial asylum agreement between Guatemala and United States.

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    A man carries empty boxes past the graffiti that reads, 'No third country' near Congress in Guatemala City [File: Oliver de Ros/AP Photo]
    A man carries empty boxes past the graffiti that reads, 'No third country' near Congress in Guatemala City [File: Oliver de Ros/AP Photo]

    Guatemala City, Guatemala - The first Honduran asylum seeker arrived in Guatemala on Thursday from the United States under a new agreement between the Trump administration and Guatemalan government that has been slammed by rights groups.

    The Honduran migrant, who has not been identified, arrived in Guatemala City from El Paso, Texas on Thursday morning.

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    Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart confirmed that more flights with asylum seekers will arrive in the coming week.

    "We are awaiting for the United States to indicate to us how many people will be ready," he said. 

    On Wednesday, The Trump administration officially published details of the so-called "safe third country" agreement, which was signed in July by Degenhart. The agreement allows US immigration authorities to require asylum seekers to first apply for asylum in Guatemala prior to attempting to come to the US.

    Immigrant rights groups have criticised the plan, saying it is inconceivable that migrants would be sent to a country that has high levels of violence and poverty. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans fled the country last year to seek asylum in the US. 

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    "The government is incapable of receiving these people," said Eva Arriaza, a 41-year-old migrant rights activist in La Libertad, Guatemala.

    "[The government] is incapable of supporting its own people, there is extreme malnutrition, for example," she told Al Jazeera.

    According to Degenhart, the asylum-seeking man, who arrived on Thursday, will be processed and eventually sent back to Honduras at his request.

    Degenhart told Reuters News Agency on Saturday that he expected some Salvadorans and Hondurans would request to return to their home countries instead of waiting in Guatemala.

    On Thursday, Degenhart said asylum seekers would be processed in Guatemala, but their stay and shelter in the country would be the responsibility of the UN immigration and asylum agencies.

    'Putting people at risk'

    The agreement faced legal challenges in Guatemala's Constitutional Court, the country's highest court. The court initially blocked the agreement, ruling on July 14 that the agreement must be approved by the country's congress. 

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    But Degenhart said his office had determined that there was no need for approval from congress.

    Degenhart said, "This work that is being done in conjunction with the United States is to pursue and disarticulate the operational capacities of the structures of transnational organised crime."

    But rights groups say such policies will push more migrants to pursue dangerous means to arrive in the US.

    "People are looking for other forms of reaching the United States," Wolkte said. "These policies are not disincentivising migration, but rather it is putting people further at risk."

    The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to Al Jazeera's request at the time of publication.

    Alejandro Giammattei, Guatemala's incoming president, has said he will evaluate the "safe third country" deal upon taking office in January. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News