In Brief

Can ‘Safe Third Country’ Agreements Resolve the Asylum Crisis?

Washington is hoping it can force asylum seekers to stay south of the border.

The Donald J. Trump administration is pressing Guatemala and several other Latin American countries to sign “safe third country” agreements, which would require migrants to seek asylum in the countries they travel through rather than in the United States. But can these countries offer them safety?

What’s happening?

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Trump has been pushing for safe third country agreements in recent months amid a surge in Central American migration to the United States. The number of migrants apprehended at the southern U.S. border surpassed 144,000 in May 2019, the highest monthly total since 2006.

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An unprecedented number of them are seeking asylum, leading to a massive backlog in U.S. immigration courts and overcrowded detention facilities. By law, the United States can’t deny entry to asylum seekers. Trump is hoping to get around that requirement by either keeping them from reaching the United States in the first place or creating a legal justification for deporting them without a hearing.

What countries are involved?

The administration is pushing for several new safe third country agreements:

Guatemala. Most asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras pass through Guatemala. The Trump administration signed a deal with President Jimmy Morales in July, after threatening tariffs, that would require these asylum seekers to remain in Guatemala. The United States could then send those who travel on back there. However, the deal was challenged by the country’s constitutional court, and it’s unclear whether it will be implemented.

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A migrant child sits on a backpack in front of police officers at the Aguas Calientes border crossing between Honduras and Guatemala.
A migrant child sits on a backpack in front of police officers at the Aguas Calientes border crossing between Honduras and Guatemala. Morena Perez Joachin/Getty Images

Mexico. Mexico has refused to sign a safe third country agreement, with officials arguing that they have already helped to reduce migration to the United States. Since January, the Trump administration has sent many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. In a June deal, signed under tariff pressure, Mexico agreed to take in more asylum seekers and boost enforcement of its southern border with Guatemala.

Panama. U.S. officials are also interested in striking an agreement with Panama, through which thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean transit while attempting to reach the United States.

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What exactly is involved in a safe third country agreement?

Asylum seekers are required to make their claims in the first country they enter that is a party to the safe third country agreement. If they don’t, the other countries in the agreement can dismiss their claims and send them back to that country.

Under the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act, these agreements aren’t considered treaties, so they can be made without Congress’s approval. Asylum seekers may only be deported to countries where their lives aren’t threatened, and where they have full access to fair asylum proceedings.

What are the criticisms?

Critics say Trump’s proposed agreements wouldn’t meet these standards. They argue that Guatemala and Mexico lack the resources to handle so many asylum claims and point to State Department warnings that asylum seekers are at risk of violence in both countries. Many also say that such agreements don’t address the root causes that push people to flee and may just encourage them to find different routes to the United States.

The administration counters that the measures are necessary to stem migration and protect asylum seekers from long, dangerous journeys, often in the hands of human traffickers.

Are there other examples of safe third country agreements?

The United States has one other such arrangement, a 2002 agreement with Canada.

The European Union, amid an influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, has also enacted policies to return asylum seekers to third countries. The bloc’s Dublin Regulation says that asylum seekers must make their claims in the first EU country they enter or risk being returned there. In 2016, Turkey agreed to a deal with the EU to take back refugees. And in 2017, EU countries controversially made an agreement with Libyan authorities to return would-be asylum seekers detained while crossing the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Trump administration officials hope this is just the beginning: they are also seeking agreements with Brazil, El Salvador, and Honduras.

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