Guatemala must strengthen asylum system to be safe third country, UNHCR says

Hondurans trying to reach the U.S., arrive at a migration shelter in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo by: REUTERS / Luis Echeverria

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Guatemalan civil society leaders are questioning the country's ability to act as a "safe third country" for asylum-seekers, while The UN Refugee Agency says it will only be possible if protection systems are strengthened.

Giovanni Bassu, UNHCR regional representative for Central America and Cuba, said the agency is in conversations with both the United States and Guatemalan governments about the safe third country agreement to encourage best practices and international standards for asylum processes.

“I don’t think UNHCR has anything per se against safe third country agreements. I think it depends very much on the terms and conditions of that agreement,” Bassu said. 

The agreement, signed by outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, designates Guatemala a “safe third country,” which means people who transit through its territory must first seek asylum there. Only if their claim is denied are they able to request protection in the U.S., a stipulation pushed by Trump in an attempt to stop migration across the southern border.

“If the U.S. is accused of keeping kids in cages because they don’t have the necessary resources ... imagine how it would go here in Guatemala.”

— Olga Elvira Hernández, project coordinator, FUNDAESPRO

Exact details outlining the implementation of the agreement, signed last month, have not been made public by either country. Guatemala’s newly-elected president Alejandro Giammattei, who takes office in January, has said he does not support it as signed by his predecessor.

Guatemala, the Northern Triangle country from which most migrants leave, is ill-equipped to guarantee the safety of asylum-seekers. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which U.S. Customs and Border Protection has migration data for the southern U.S. border, more Guatemalan family units and unaccompanied minors were apprehended than those from El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico.

“The main condition with Guatemala is that it hasn’t really got a capacity to deal with a lot of asylum-seekers and refugees, not so much for the conditions of the country itself but for the fact that it has never had to deal with a lot of refugees,” Bassu said. “I think the systems are not really in place to receive large numbers of people. Having said that, you can always strengthen institutions and systems, you just need time and investment to do so.”

A bunk room in a migration shelter in Guatemala City. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

The UNHCR Guatemala office only resumed operations in the country a few years ago, Bassu said, and has a small budget. Most people transiting through don’t intend to stay in Guatemala, he said, and the number of refugee seekers in the country has been minimal but increasing every year. UNHCR provides services to people even if they don’t intend to seek asylum in Guatemala.

“We’ve been encouraging the government to be prepared because if you’re seeing this kind of increase year by year, prepare yourselves for processing these asylum claims,” Bassu said. “We’ve also been working a lot with civil society to make sure that there are shelters available on both sides of borders, where we give assistance, where we give legal advice, where we give psychosocial support.”

“We are not safe. How is this going to be a safe third country?”

— Salvadoran asylum-seeker in Guatemala

He said the agency has not seen implementation plans for the agreement, but that “the worst-case scenarios are clearly worrying.”

Guatemalan community leaders say the country’s weak institutions already struggle to take care of its own citizens, many of whom live in communities rife with violence and crime. Olga Elvira Hernández, a project coordinator for FUNDAESPRO, a civil society group that organizes women in marginalized urban areas, said she is concerned about the stress an additional influx of people would place on the Guatemalan education and health systems. She said the country’s test scores in math and language are lower than its regional neighbors, and hospitals don’t have proper supplies and only function during limited hours.

“If the U.S. is accused of keeping kids in cages because they don’t have the necessary resources to, at the very least, guarantee the rights of this population, imagine how it would go here in Guatemala,” Hernández said. “Guatemala doesn’t have the minimum conditions established by international protocols for services for refugees nor for its own population.”

A sign in a migration shelter in Guatemala City tells residents that they have the right to ask for asylum. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

‘How is this going to be a safe third country?’

International NGOs are also concerned about the agreement, as they work to strengthen Guatemalan governance, civil society, and community ties.

Stricter U.S. immigration requirements, intended to stop people from crossing the border irregularly or seeking asylum in the U.S., may in fact be counterproductive, said Marcelo Viscarra, Guatemala country director at Mercy Corps.

“There’s many different and completely opposed opinions and rumors about [the agreement], and that’s making communities and municipalities very nervous,” Viscarra said. “We hear that it’s producing the exact opposite reaction as what the U.S. government is trying to achieve. Since the window of opportunity is closing, people are in a rush to flee.”

Mandating asylum-seekers stay in Guatemala could also put at risk a population that is escaping violence and fears being recognized or located by gangs because the network of support for refugees in the country is so small.

A Salvadoran asylum-seeker, whom Devex is not naming to protect her safety, said it makes her nervous that more asylum-seekers from her own country could be forced to stay in Guatemala. She had her own business making Salvadoran food, but fled the country after experiencing extortion, finding work at a migrant shelter in Guatemala City while her asylum claim plays out. People from her community have stayed at the shelter on their journey, which makes her fearful she could be recognized.

“When I see them, I hide myself,” the asylum-seeker said. “We are not safe. How is this going to be a safe third country?”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.

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