WASHINGTON - A "cooperative" asylum agreement between the United States and Guatemala may be near, despite no such cooperation between the U.S. State Department and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
On Thursday, Reuters reported that Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales might sign a "safe third country agreement" with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two are scheduled to meet in Washington.
A State Department official with knowledge of ongoing discussions, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Monday was the target date, but added, "We still seem far from [an] agreement."
Marta Larra, a spokeswoman for Guatemala's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VOA the bilateral meetings would cover "security, migration and the economy," but did not indicate that Guatemala was prepared to sign a deal. Negotiations have been ongoing in Guatemala City since mid-June.
What the agreement would do
A safe third country agreement, if signed by both countries, would block most asylum seekers from seeking refuge in the United States if they pass through Guatemala first. A geographic barrier between Mexico to the north, and El Salvador and Honduras to the south, Guatemala is a common pathway for global asylum seekers traveling from Central and South America toward the U.S.
Explainer Safe Third Country video player. Embed Copy
In a statement released Friday, Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First's Refugee Protection program, said, "Guatemala comes nowhere near meeting U.S. legal requirements for a safe country for refugee returns," and called any such agreement "legally absurd" and "highly dangerous" to asylum seekers fleeing persecution.
Refugees International President Eric Schwartz called it "an egregious violation of law and common decency."
Already, five former senior Guatemalan officials have made an appeal to Guatemala's Constitutional Court to seek an injunction against any safe third country agreement between the two countries.
But notably absent from the table during U.S.-Guatemala safe third country negotiations has been the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, whose primary purpose is "to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees."
Draft 'implementation plan'
A draft "implementation plan" obtained by VOA, which details a procedural timeline from apprehension and processing of asylum seekers to their screening, removal and reception in Guatemala, references the U.N. refugee agency several times.
But the news comes as a surprise to UNHCR. Sibylla Brodzinsky, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in the Washington office, told VOA on Friday, "The UNHCR has not been part of discussions of a potential agreement between the two countries."
VOA emailed questions to the State Department regarding the pending agreement's status and the absence of UNHCR involvement. A State Department spokesperson replied, "We do not discuss internal and interagency deliberations, nor do we discuss specific documents or communications that are involved in such deliberations."
Separately, a State Department official, whose comments appear on the internal draft document, acknowledged the agency's lack of communication with UNHCR and warned against its inclusion in the document's language, absent a direct request to UNHCR.
How many people?
At one point, during the proposed removal process, the document states that the U.S. government "will facilitate the return up to 10 flights of 125 aliens each to Guatemala per week," to which the official asked, "Where is this number coming from and when will it begin?"
The official estimated that it is "unlikely that Guatemala will be in a position to receive large numbers of asylum seekers until UNHCR's program is well underway," estimating a time frame of four to five months.
Calling Guatemala's asylum system "nascent," UNHCR's Brodzinsky said the country was developing and implementing its legal framework for refugee protections, but added, "The operational capacity to respond to large numbers of asylum seekers would be limited."