Inhumane conditions in Tapachula worsen for migrants while Guatemala begins to receive asylum seekers exported by the United States

Asylum seekers gather outside the 21st Century Migratory Station in Tapachula – the largest immigration detention center in Mexico – receive food from civil society organizations. Photo from May 2019, courtesy of Father Heyman Vásquez, director of the hostel “Nadie es Extranjero”


Chicago, November 25, 2019 – The humanitarian tragedy brought about by the US government’s decision to send asylum applicants back to Mexico to await their hearings extends far beyond the US-Mexico border.  One of the most affected areas is Tapachula, Chiapas, on the Mexican/Guatemalan border.  Many of the individuals and families living in inhumane conditions there have requested refuge in the United States, while others are fighting for their right to continue their transit through Mexico.  A recent special report by Salvadorian newspaper El Faro and El País paints a graphic picture of the horrifying conditions faced by asylum seekers.  It also describes how migrants who attempt to settle and work in agriculture in southern Mexico are subjected to rights abuses, work without contracts, lack health benefits and often receive less than the minimum wage. Additionally, we suggest reading the most recent report by the Human Rights Observatory Mission in Tapachula that documents the complicated process of requesting asylum in Mexico and the human rights violations perpetrated by state security personnel.


Rule of law in Guatemala undermined by new agreement to export people seeking protection

Last week, the asylum agreement between Guatemala and the United States went into effect despite a ruling from the Constitutional Court of Guatemala stating that the agreement required ratification. The Trump Administration swiftly filed a new set of procedural rules allowing the US to remove a person who has requested asylum in the US, to El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala, rather than allowing the asylum petition to continue in this country.  The new rules create an expedited process that is supposed to determine if an asylum seeker will be at risk in that third country. However, the process does not give the asylum-seekers any say in the matter.  In other words, an asylum-seeker from Honduras can be sent to Guatemala without his consent (as happened last week on November 22, when a Honduran man was sent to Guatemala).  Once removed from the US, the person will have the option of seeking asylum in the assigned country, of dropping the asylum claim and trying to remain permanently in that country by other means, or of returning to the country of origin.  The Honduran asylum seeker opted to accept voluntary return to his home country under a program offered by the International Organization on Migration (IOM). Civil society groups, including the Catholic Pastoral de Movilidad Humana de Guatemala, flatly rejected the new agreement, noting that Guatemala lacks the infrastructure or the capacity to protect asylum seekers and calling into question whether return under those conditions was in fact “voluntary” or instead represented a violation of the international principle of “non-refoulement.”


To make matters worse, the accord is being implemented by the outgoing administration of President Jimmy Morales without congressional approval in Guatemala, making it unconstitutional and contributes to undermining the already fragile rule of law in Guatemala.  The rapid implementation appears to be designed to present incoming president Alejandro Giammattei with a fait accompli that will be difficult to undo when she takes office on January 14. Giammattei has expressed reservations about the agreement. 


These new agreements are the next chapter in the US effort to undermine the asylum system and to deny international protection to those who seek it.  The new rules do not require the individual to have transited through a particular country in order to be sent there. They allow the U.S to unilaterally tell an undetermined number of asylum seekers that they cannot seek asylum in this country, but rather in another one, to which they will be sent against their will.  If they balk, they can be deported to their country of origin.  


It is impossible to predict how many people will opt to seek asylum in a Central American country, but the fragility and slowness of the asylum systems in those three countries, combined with security concerns, lack of integration opportunities, and lack of access to health care, education and work, will certainly be strong disincentives.  They are not “safe third country” agreements as many have called them– in fact, the safety of human beings is irrelevant. They should really be called asylum exportation agreements or “asylum denial and deportation” agreements, because that is the role they will play. 


The United States has both the resources and the capacity to take in all those seek refuge here.  Indeed, it has a long legal and moral tradition of doing just that. The fact that it is is now turning people away represents another victory for the xenophobes in Washington.

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