Guatemala seen as ill-prepared to absorb US-bound refugees

International

FILE – In this Jan. 10, 2019 file photo, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales talks with Canada’s ambassador Rita Marija Rudaitis-Renaud during a welcome ceremony for ambassadors in Guatemala City. A potential agreement with Washington to turn Guatemala into a “safe third country” for asylum seekers has the Guatemalan opposition up in arms and experts scratching their heads. President Morales is set to meet Monday, July 15, in Washington with U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, and officials there have said “safe third country” is on the table, though not a done deal. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A potential agreement with Washington to turn Guatemala into a “safe third country” for asylum seekers has the Guatemalan opposition up in arms and experts scratching their heads.

President Jimmy Morales is set to meet Monday in Washington with U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, and officials there have said “safe third country” is on the table, though not a done deal.

It would mean Salvadorans, Hondurans and people from elsewhere who cross into Guatemala would have to apply for asylum there instead of doing so at the U.S. border — potentially significantly easing the crush that the United States is dealing with, and handing Trump a concession he could tout as a win.

But as both a source nation for migrants and asylum seekers trying to get to the United States and a transit country for people from other countries, it is in poor position to provide safety and economic opportunity to others when tens of thousands of its own citizens have fled just this year.

“Guatemala does not have the conditions to guarantee security for foreigners who are fleeing violence, as signaled under international statutes on refugees,” said Ursula Roldan of the Rafael Landivar University. “We cannot offer conditions of health, a dignified life or education even to our own people, let alone those who come from elsewhere.”

According to the World Bank, Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America but is among the worst in Latin America on indicators of inequality and poverty — particularly in rural areas and among indigenous communities. Sixty percent of Guatemalans are poor, the Bank says, while maternal and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the region.

And according to the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies, nearly 900,000 people suffer from malnutrition in the country.

If forced to seek refuge in Guatemala, migrants and asylum seekers from elsewhere would find themselves facing those same troubling realities and lack of infrastructure to house, feed and educate them.

“Their final destination is not Guatemala. The destiny and dream of all of them is the United States,” opposition lawmaker Paul Briere said. “What can Guatemala offer them that’s different from what there is in El Salvador and Honduras? Absolutely nothing — we are in a precarious state just like them.”

Washington has also wanted Mexico to become a “safe third country,” something it has resisted. However it has allowed an expansion of a program under which thousands of asylum seekers are returned from the United States to Mexico to await resolution of their claims, including in dangerous border cities where gangs and cartels have a strong presence.

Guatemalan presidential spokesman Alfredo Brito said there is no intention for Morales to sign a “safe third country” agreement on Monday, and that the order of the day would be high-level talks on migration, security and economic matters.

But there’s been so much talk about a possible agreement that this week multiple court filings sought injunctions against Morales and his officials signing off on such a deal. The Constitutional Court has not yet ruled.

Suspicions have swirled, meanwhile, about what Morales’ intentions may be.

Activist Eleonora Muralles said Morales may be interested in currying favor with Washington and seeking support as he faces various investigations and complaints against him in Guatemala. He’s currently shielded from such legal issues as sitting president, but that protection stands to go away when he leaves office in January.

“It doesn’t make sense that less than seven months (before he steps down) he would be doing this negotiation with the United States,” Muralles said. “It’s not his business anymore. What he wants is to protect himself from various crimes he has been implicated in.”

Investigators and prosecutors have sought several times to have Morales’ immunity of office lifted, but congress has not authorized it. He denies wrongdoing.

Brito said Morales is not looking for any sort of protection from Washington but intends to discuss cooperation.

Roldan noted that Guatemala already struggles to support its own citizens when they are deported from the United States, even as the Trump administration has announced deportation raids to begin Sunday.

According to Guatemala’s immigration institute, the U.S. has deported nearly 30,000 Guatemalans since January.

“Guatemala must (help) the deportees,” Roldan said. “We have our own problems.”

In neighboring El Salvador, Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco said this week that the possibility of a “safe third country” in Guatemala is out of their control.

“We are lobbying and doing everything we can to try to protect our people from this situation,” Hill said.

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Associated Press writer Marcos Alemán contributed from San Salvador, El Salvador.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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