Colombia resumes ‘removal’ flights repatriating citizens from US

The announcement comes a day after Colombia announced a suspension of the flights, citing ‘cruel’ treatment.

Guatemalan unaccompanied minors walk on the tarmac after arriving on a deportation flight from Mexico, at the Guatemalan Air Force (FAG) headquarters in La Aurora International Airport
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has expelled 48,381 through ‘removal flights’ in the first half of fiscal year 2023 [File: Sandra Sebastian/Reuters]

Colombia’s migration agency has announced that flights would resume next week carrying citizens deported from the United States border, a day after the South American nation said it would temporarily suspend the expulsion programme over allegations of “cruel and degrading treatment”.

Fernando García Manosalva, the head of Migración Colombia, issued a video statement to address the policy shift on Friday. In a Twitter post, the agency affirmed that “humane treatment and decent conditions during transfers will be the fundamental axis” of the continued flights from the United States.

“US authorities expressed their willingness to follow up on the complaints,” it wrote, crediting the “good will” of the parties involved.

Guatemalan deportees cross the tarmac after arriving on a deportation flight from the U.S., at the Guatemalan Air Force
The United States has used deportation flights, like this one to Guatemala City, as part of its strategy to deter arrivals at its southern border [File: Sandra Sebastian/Reuters]

The announcement follows a Thursday news release declaring a temporary suspension of the flights, designed to return undocumented arrivals from the southern border of the US to Colombia.

The news release cited repeated flight cancellations and the “worrying, degrading treatment that compatriots receive before and during flights” as reasons for the suspension.

“The use of restrictive elements such as hand and foot handcuffs, even for women, mothers of families, has been one of the central aspects of the negotiations with the agencies, to dignify the treatment of Colombians,” García Manosalva said in the release.

The migration agency estimated that 1,200 Colombians had been expected to return on the then-suspended flights between May 1 and 7.

García Manosalva indicated that the number of flights had been on the rise as well: A year ago, Colombia received one or two per month. By February, he said, “We were receiving around 20 per month.”

Those numbers coincide with an increase of Colombians arriving at the US-Mexico border.

For fiscal year 2022, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency documented 125,172 “encounters” with Colombian nationals unlawfully crossing the southwest border, up from 6,202 the previous year and a vast jump from the 404 recorded in 2020.

Already, an estimated 89,201 crossings have been recorded for the first five months of fiscal year 2023.

The US is currently bracing for an anticipated surge in crossings as the controversial border-expulsion policy Title 42 is set to expire on May 11.

The policy, enacted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic under then-President Donald Trump, allowed officials to turn away asylum seekers on public health grounds, even though experts said its benefits were dubious. Human rights activists likewise blasted the measure as a violation of refugee law.

The US is expected to finalise new rules to restrict asylum access at its southern border in the days leading up to Title 42’s expiration. As part of its strategy for “humanely managing migration flows”, the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden has “dramatically scaled up the number of removal flights per week”.

“The number of weekly flights will double or triple for some countries,” the Department of Homeland Security said in April. Another agency, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), issued a release on Wednesday stating that 48,381 people had been removed from the country on “removal flights” in the first half of 2023.

In late April, Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior confirmed that it too had resumed receiving “removal flights” from the US for the first time since December 2020. It said the plane carried 40 people who had travelled to the US by raft, plus another 83 who were detained at the US-Mexico border.

Source: Al Jazeera