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U.S. Government’s New “Safe Third Country” Deal with Guatemala Puts Asylum Seekers at Grave Risk: PHR

Designation of Guatemala as “safe” makes a mockery of asylum protections in U.S. law

The Trump administration’s new agreement with Guatemala violates U.S. and international law on the right to seek asylum and poses a serious risk to the safety of those seeking protection in the United States, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) warned today.

The bilateral Asylum “Cooperative” Agreement announced today allows the U.S. government to send asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border to Guatemala. This violates the provisions of U.S. law which prohibit “safe third country” relocation of asylum seekers unless that third country can ensure their protection from persecution and guarantee a full and fair asylum process. The new agreement also violates the principle of non-refoulement in international law, which holds that states should not return asylum seekers to a place where they could be subjected to “great risk, irreparable harm, or persecution.”

PHR’s research shows how asylum seekers who relocated to Guatemala and other countries in the region continued to face threats or violence. In PHR’s recent report “If I went back, I would not survive,”PHR medical experts documented the case of Sergio, whose family fled from Honduras to Guatemala after an attack by members of organized crime. Sergio told PHR that, after two months in Guatemala, he was again found by the very men he had fled, so his family then went to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek protection in the United States.

“This agreement with Guatemala will place asylum seekers who are already in vulnerable situations in potentially mortal danger, and constitutes a new front in this administration’s unrelenting attacks on the right to seek asylum,” said Tamaryn Nelson, senior researcher at PHR. “News reports that asylum seekers could be sent to Guatemala as soon as this week underscore the urgent need for law-abiding policies that protect human rights.”

“This is one of several agreements the Trump administration is making with countries that are simply unable to keep asylum seekers safe,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, U.S. researcher at PHR. “This policy makes a mockery of the idea of a ‘safe third country’ and further erodes the integrity of the U.S. asylum system.”

Guatemala’s violent crime statistics highlight the dangers to asylum seekers. Guatemala’s homicide rate is more than four times the U.S. rate, and more than 97 percent of crimes go unsolved.

Nearly 3,000 Guatemalans were granted asylum in the United States in 2017, which demonstrates that Guatemala is not a safe country for those fleeing persecution. Volunteer health professionals in PHR’s Asylum Network have conducted hundreds of forensic medical evaluations for Guatemalan asylum seekers which have corroborated their testimonies of persecution in Guatemala.

“Seeking asylum is a human right. For decades, the United States has provided due process for those applying for asylum who have escaped torture, killings, and persecution, regardless of how they arrived at the country’s borders,” said Nelson. “Under the new agreement, individuals and families who have already made the treacherous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border could now be forced to face new dangers elsewhere.”

In a further threat to asylum seekers’ well-being, U.S. administration officials have reportedly not yet determined how those returned to Guatemala could access shelter, food, and social services, according to a government document obtained by Buzzfeed News.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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