How “safe third country” agreements are effectively working to dismantle the US asylum system.
Erwin Ardón, a 26 year-old man from Honduras who fled to the US for safety, found out one day last month that he was being put on a plane. What he didn’t know was that he was being sent to a country he did not know.
On November 21, 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported Ardón to Guatemala—the first asylum seeker sent back to the region under a new collection of “safe third country” agreements signed by the US and countries in Central America. Days before, media outlets reported that DHS officials were scrambling to figure out how to connect Ardón and other migrants like him with basic services including shelter, food, transportation, and other care.
In the fight for Dignity for All, we must treat migrants with compassion, offer them help them when they need it, and protect their rights. Not only was Ardón’s deportation an abhorrent move to deter migrants from seeking safety on our shores. It also illustrates how the US wishes to continue to outsource its responsibility under national and international law to provide refuge to those in crisis.
What are safe third country agreements?
The Trump administration signed safe third country agreements, also known as Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACA), with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras over the summer.
Under the agreements, asylum seekers from the region must apply for protection inside the first country through which they travel that is not their own. This essentially allows the US government to turn its back on those asylum seekers who arrive at the US southern border without having taken that critical step. And it gets worse—according to the LA Times, failure to follow these new rules would automatically disqualify anyone from ever seeking asylum in the US.
With the ACA now in effect in Guatemala, the Trump administration wants to start sending asylum seekers to Honduras at the beginning of 2020. Honduran human rights organizations have filed a legal action of protection, calling for the agreement’s suspension. When asylum seekers will be sent to El Salvador is unknown, although Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele admitted in a recent 60 Minutes interview that the conditions in his country cannot guarantee that the rights of those seeking asylum will be protected.
Why these safe third country agreements won’t work
Little is actually known about the agreements. None have had Congressional oversight, and what is known was leaked to the media. The US-Guatemala agreement actually defies a July ruling by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court stating that the legislature must approve the agreement. Outgoing President Jimmy Morales has ignored the ruling.
But what we do know is that these governments in Central America are unable to protect their own people—let alone asylum seekers deported to their countries. As Latin America Working Group (LAWG) Director Lisa Haugaard mentioned in a Congressional hearing in early December, these countries aren’t even safe first countries. They are unable to guarantee the conditions for a decent life for their own people, and it is ludicrous to think that they can do so for anyone else, especially non-citizens.
Religious institutions, the UN, as well as national and international human rights organizations have also condemned these agreements. The Guatemalan Pastoral of Human Mobility rejected the accord on the grounds that the government’s humanitarian asylum system does not function. And in a rare rebuke of US policy, the UN’s refugee agency—which receives US funds—raised “serious concerns” about the Guatemala agreement. “It is an approach at variance with international law that could result in the transfer of highly vulnerable individuals to countries where they may face life-threatening dangers,” the agency said.
How we protect the rights of people forced to flee their homes
Since World War II, the US has provided shelter to people seeking safety. Yet the Trump administration has pushed through discriminatory policies over the last three years that includes the separation of families, a failure to renew Temporary Protected Status and the Dream Act, and this latest step to dismantle the asylum process in this country.
It does not have to be this way. Together we are calling on the next President to reverse all discriminatory policies instituted since 2017 and improve the existing asylum system through executive actions, plans, and legislation to ensure refugees and migrants are treated with respect. We are also continuing to work with the current Congress to address reasons why people are forced to migrate. We will continue to do so until migrating becomes a choice and not a necessity.