GUATEMALA CITY – The chartered U.S. government flights land here every day or two, depositing Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers from the U.S. border. Many arrive with the same question: “Where are we?”
For the first time ever, the U.S. is shipping asylum-seekers who arrive at its border to a so-called safe third country to seek refuge there. The Trump administration hopes the program will serve as a model for others in the region.
But during its first weeks, asylum-seekers and human rights advocates say, migrants have been put on planes without being told where they were headed, and left here without being given basic information about what to do next.
When the migrants land in Guatemala City, they’re given little information about what it means to apply for asylum in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. Those who don’t immediately apply are told to leave the country in 72 hours. The form is labeled “Voluntary Return.”
“In the U.S., the agents told us our cases would be transferred, but they didn’t say where. Then they lined us up to get on the plane,” said Marta, 43, from Honduras. She sat in a migrant shelter here with her 17-year-old son, who nursed a gunshot wound in the left cheek — the work, mother and son say, of the gang MS-13.
“When we looked out the window, we were here,” she said. “We thought, ‘Where are we? What are we supposed to do now?’ ”
Human rights organizations in Guatemala say they have recorded dozens of cases of asylum-seekers who were misled by U.S. officials into boarding flights, and who were not informed of their asylum rights upon arrival. Of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the program began last month, only five have applied for asylum, according to the country’s migration agency.
“Safe third country” is one of the Trump administration’s most dramatic initiatives to curb migration — an effort to remake the U.S. asylum system. Trump has called it “terrific for Guatemala and terrific for us.”
But the Asylum Cooperation Agreement is bringing migrants to a country unable to provide economic and physical security for its own citizens — many of whom are themselves trying to migrate. In the fiscal year 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, at more than 264,000. The country has only a skeletal asylum program, with fewer than a dozen asylum officers.
As the deal was negotiated, it drew concerns from the U.N. and human rights organizations. But its implementation, advocates say, has been worse than they feared.
“It’s a total disaster,” said Thelma Shau, who has observed the arrival of asylum-seekers at La Aurora International Airport in her role overseeing migration issues for Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman.
“They arrive here without being told that Guatemala is their destination,” she said. “They are asked, ‘Do you want refuge here or do you want to leave?’ And they have literally minutes to decide without knowing anything about what that means.”
The Guatemalan government says it explains options, and migrants are simply choosing to leave voluntarily.
“Central American people are given comprehensive attention when they arrive in the country, and respect for their human rights is a priority,” said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s migration agency. “The information provided is complete for them to make a decision.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. The United States has signed similar safe third country agreements with El Salvador and Honduras, but they have not yet been implemented. In recent days, Trump Administration officials have said they are considering sending Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala to seek refuge there.
Paula Arana observed the orientation as child protection liaison for the human rights ombudsman. “It’s clear that the government is not providing enough information for asylum-seekers to make a decision, especially in the three minutes they are given,” she said. “Instead, they are being pushed out of the country.”