Guatemalan groups say migration agreement with US is 'illegal'

Newly signed agreement for those seeking asylum in the US is met with outrage among activists and former officials.

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    The agreement, signed on Friday, must still be approved by Guatemala's Congress [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
    The agreement, signed on Friday, must still be approved by Guatemala's Congress [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

    Guatemala City, Guatemala - Human rights groups, activists and former officials in Guatemala have expressed fierce opposition to a controversial migration deal signed by the country's government and the United States.

    The agreement was struck on Friday, days after US President Donald Trump threatened to slap sanctions on the Central American country if it did not enter into a so-called "safe third country" agreement that would have required it to host more asylum seekers.

    Opponents to the agreement decried the country's inability to address the needs of its citizens as a reason why Guatemala - a country that has seen thousands of its citizens attempt to reach the US fleeing poverty, violence and poor economic conditions - would be unable to take asylum seekers.

    "Guatemala does not meet the minimal conditions for its own inhabitants," Jordan Rodas, the country's human rights ombudsman, told Al Jazeera.

    The human rights office was exploring a potential legal action against the agreement, he said.

    'Irresponsible' 

    While the US side has referred to the deal as a "third safe country" agreement, the government of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has refrained from calling it as such. The Morales administration issued a statement saying the deal would apply to citizens from Honduras and El Salvador.

    "Guatemala has very clear responsibility," said Enrique Degenhart, the Guatemalan interior minister who signed the agreement at the White House.

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    "It is clear that changes must be made and the way to do it is to work with our best ally. That is what we are showing here today, we are definitely committed to improving what we have."

    The agreement, however, must still be approved by Guatemala's Congress, which is currently in recess until August. It is unclear if it will receive the backing it requires.

    But for Edgar Gutierrez, a former minister of foreign relations in the 2000-2004 administration of President Alfonso Portillo, the answer is clear.

    "This agreement cannot be implemented," he told Al Jazeera, calling it "irresponsible".

    "There is no capacity … [and] no resources to give it even minimal compliance," he said.

    The two governments had been negotiating such an agreement for months but on July 14, Guatemala's Constitutional Court blocked the Morales administration from entering into a deal without congressional approval - a ruling that was met with condemnation by the president and members of Guatemala's business community.

    'Third safe country'

    The concept of a "third safe country" comes from the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as an "individual who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group".

    According to international law, a "third safe country" must comply with certain requirements to attend to refugees seeking protection, including that an asylum seeker's "life and liberty are not threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

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    The UN's refugee agency says the term is being used for countries "which are determined either as being non-refugee-producing countries or as being countries in which refugees can enjoy asylum without any danger".

    Yet Guatemala has continued to fail to meet the needs of its citizens in terms of security, opportunity and social services, observers say.

    As a result of insecurity and poverty, thousands of Guatemalans have attempted migrating to the US in recent years.

    Claudia Samayoa, the founder and director of Udefegua, a human rights group in Guatemala, called the agreement "illegal", saying Guatemala did not meet the conditions required for a "third safety country" under international law.

    "The Guatemalan state cannot guarantee security, or economic security, or even social security for its citizens," she told Al Jazeera.

    Samayoa cited an increase in extreme poverty, corruption, violence, malnutrition, lack of access to healthcare and education as reasons why Guatemala could never be a safe country for migrants.

    Call for protests

    According to the Guatemalan Health Ministry, cases of malnutrition increased by 36 percent in 2019. Yet many cases go unreported, groups that work in the country say.

    Poverty has also risen in recent years, with nearly 60 percent of the population living in poverty, according to World Bank figures.

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    Meanwhile, a lack of funding has further strained Guatemala's struggling healthcare and educational systems, just as gang violence and drug traffickers continue to plague the country.

    Social movements called for nationwide protests across the country on Saturday to reject the deal.

    "We are fully against this agreement," Gabriela Davila, the director of the LGBT rights organisation Gente Positiva, told Al Jazeera.

    "The agreement is illegal," she said. "We are calling for the 22 departments of the country to reject the agreement."

    A number of civil society groups are expected to join Gente Positiva on Saturday in the central square of Guatemala City.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News