Guatemala City – Guatemala’s new government will continue to receive Honduran and Salvador asylum seekers from the United States under a controversial asylum deal, the country’s minister of foreign affairs confirmed on Wednesday.
The US has sent more than 230 Hondurans and Salvadorans to Guatemala since November under the terms of an asylum cooperation agreement, signed in July by former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. According to the so-called “safe third country” agreement, US immigration officials can send migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there or return home to their home country.
Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei, who was sworn in last week, had reserved judgment on the agreement until annexe documents withheld by the previous administration could be analysed. In the end, the US provided the documents for review, Giammattei said Monday.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Pedro Brolo told reporters on Wednesday that the signed agreement was a state commitment and that the government would review the implementation details with US assistance.
“We already have communication with the US embassy. A team of specialists is going to come so that we can sit down and see what capacities we have to do this in a more transparent way,” Brolo said.
Brolo added that officials will work to remove the secrecy surrounding the agreement and engage international agencies in the development of protocols.
But the agreement’s very foundation has faced widespread criticism in Central America and the US. Rights groups have repeatedly noted that Guatemala – the top country of origin of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the US southern border – is not a safe country for others fleeing violence and poverty.
“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread,” the US State Department notes in its travel advisory for Guatemala.
Of the first 181 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala under the deal, fewer than 10 percent took steps to seek asylum in the country and only two continued in the process as of earlier this week, according to the Guatemalan Immigration Institute.
Meanwhile, thousands of Central Americans have made their way through Guatemala in hopes of making it to the US in the latest migrant caravan to leave the region. Mexico, also under pressure from the US to prevent migrants from reaching the US border, blocked large groups of the caravan. Hundreds have been deported to Honduras by Mexico or opted to return from Guatemala.
The majority of migrants sent to Guatemala as part of the asylum deal end up at the Casa del Migrante, a non-profit missionary-run migrant shelter that has been sheltering and assisting the thousands headed towards the US. Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the shelter says like the previous administration, the new government has not provided any financial support for the basic needs of asylum seekers returned under the deal.
“They throw everyone here,” Verzeletti told Al Jazeera at the shelter, where packages of soup were piled up against one wall and latex gloves and other supplies against another.
Verzeletti, like many rights advocates, has been a fierce critic of the asylum deal.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the US government last week to challenge the policy of sending asylum seekers to Guatemala or potentially also to El Salvador or Honduras, where similar deals have been in the works.
“We should not permit this,” Verzeletti said.