By Corie Welch
On January 7 the body of Cinthia Abigail Fernandez, a young woman from northern Honduras, was found in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. In an attempt to seek a better life, Cinthia reached the southern border of the United States to apply for asylum, but was denied entrance and instead sent back to Guatemala. Now, her family mourns the loss of Cinthia after her tragic murder.
Asylum Cooperation Agreement - Trump’s latest deterrence strategy
Unfortunately, the denial of migrants at the US southern border is now standard procedure as the Trump administration passes policy after policy to stem migration at the expense of the well-being and safety of migrants forced to flee their home countries. The latest step in the attack on asylum, the “Asylum Cooperation Agreement”, allows the US to send asylum seekers who have passed through a cooperating country on their way to the US back to that country to process their asylum claims. More commonly known as a “safe third country agreement,” due to the similarity between these agreements and that of the US and Canada with the same name, the agreement allows for asylum seekers to be sent, for example, to Guatemala which is supposed to serve as a safe location for migrants to apply for asylum.
So far agreements have been signed between the United States and the three nations in the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, however the agreement so far has only taken effect in Guatemala. Since taking effect, a combination of 146 Hondurans and Salvadorans have been flown from the US southern border to Guatemala City and given the choice to apply for asylum within 72 hours or return to their countries of origin.
However, the implementation of the agreement is fraught with irregularities and violations of the rights of asylum seekers. For example, many returned migrants have reported that they were not told where they were going when put on the plane to Guatemala -- some were even told they were heading straight to Honduras. Upon arrival in Guatemala, migrants are given the option to apply for asylum there but without being provided any information on how to do so or what the process entails. Overwhelmed migrants, fresh from the US detention centers on the border, are then bullied into “voluntarily” returning to their countries of origin. Of the 146 migrants that have arrived in Guatemala so far, only 5 have chosen to stay and seek asylum.
Safe for who?
Representatives of the US government in Honduras insist, perhaps rightly, that this is not a “safe third country” agreement and should be referred to appropriately as the Asylum Cooperation Agreement or ACA. The vast majority of asylum seekers returned to Guatemala so far are not making claims because for them, Guatemala is just as dangerous as Honduras and El Salvador. To consider any country in the Northern Triangle as a safe option willfully ignores reality.
US Border Patrol and Customs reports that in 2019, the majority of migrants arriving at the southern border came from a combination of the Northern Triangle, including Guatemala. Guatemalans are forced out of their homes for many of the same reasons as Hondurans: violence associated with gangs, extortion, gender-based violence, widespread corruption, police violence, failed institutions, and criminalization of human rights defenders.
Meanwhile as this article is being written, in San Pedro Sula, hundreds of families are gathering in the bus terminal, preparing to leave on the first caravan of the year, undeterred by the implications of the ACA and other Trump administration policies to gut the longstanding institution of asylum. The continuing exodus of its citizens proves that Honduras remains an unlivable place, and that people have no other choice but to make the extremely dangerous journey north in the hopes of saving their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Yet, once the ACA comes into action in Honduras, this same country currently undergoing a mass exodus of its own citizens will be considered safe for other migrants to seek asylum.
The goal of this policy is not to relocate people to safety to apply for asylum; it is simply to discourage asylum seekers from arriving at the US border. The US State Department itself deems Honduras unsafe for US citizens to visit, giving Honduras a level 3 out of 4 security advisory: “Reconsider Travel”. According to the USDoS, the level of violent crime in Honduras listed as: homicide, armed robbery, extortion, rape, and drug and human trafficking is too high for US citizens to risk their lives. Yet somehow, for those seeking asylum from Cuba, Haiti, and even as far as Central Africa, Honduras is a safe location. It cannot be ignored that the vast majority of asylum seekers sent to face the high levels of violence in Honduras will be people of color, an unsurprising continuation of the culture of racism and white supremacy so deeply ingrained in US domestic and foreign policy.
US Hypocrisy: The Case of Honduras
United States foreign policy has demonstrated time and time again that human life is not a priority in its relationship with Honduras. As the Solidarity Collective team based in Honduras, we monitor the role of US policy on human rights here -- and we witness it unabashedly on the side of a corrupt government with undeniable links to to narco-trafficking, excessive military violence, and innumerable civilian deaths.
In the US media little attention was paid in October to the astounding conviction of Tony Hernandez, the brother of the Honduran president, on massive drug trafficking charges by prosecutors in the Southern District Court of New York. Evidence presented during the trial included the use of Honduran military helicopters and submarines to transport thousands of tons of cocaine, proving the clear connections of current President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) to drug trafficking in Honduras. But even more shocking was the evidence presented that narco-trafficking connections touch every institution in the Honduran state. The devolution of Honduras into a narco-state was made possible through staunch support from the United States. From the green-lighting of illegal elections following the 2009 coup, to the support for JOH amidst election fraud and massive human rights violations in 2017, to the willful ignoring of hundreds of pages of evidence presented in US Federal court, the US government continues to use their global influence to keep JOH’s regime in power. Tony’s conviction and the evidence presented in his trial lays bare the hypocrisy of US policy in Honduras, sending security aid in the name of the war on drugs straight into the very hands of the individuals and institutions trafficking the drugs. And if that’s not hypocrisy enough, the security aid is then implemented by Honduran military and police units to repress civilians, leading to one of the prominent causes of exodus from the country and eventually asylum cases on the US border.
Someone asked me recently: “If the United States is so terrible, why are people risking everything to come here?” The case of Honduras is a clear example where US policy has made the conditions so unlivable that citizens are left with no other option but to seek refuge in the very country extracting their resources and destabilizing their home for economic gain. Since 2009, concessions for extractive mega-projects have skyrocketed, along with violence against human rights and environmental defenders. Those that resist the destruction of their homes and livelihoods face threats, intimidation, and violence at the hands of Honduran security forces.
Many Hondurans note that since 2009, security forces have returned to operating like death squads, reminiscent of the 1980s, committing extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances to generate fear and silence dissent. Meanwhile, the US pours millions of dollars into the police and military of Honduras, essentially funding these human rights violations.
That is why the Solidarity Collective supports the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR1945) which seeks to suspend all military aid to Honduras until cases of human rights violations are brought to justice. The goal of this legislation is to make Honduras a safer place for citizens currently being terrorized by a powerful narco-trafficking regime. We also condemn the ACA on all levels, understanding that no country in the Northern Triangle is safe or suitable to receive asylum seekers.
Only a few weeks after its initial implementation, one person has already died at the hands of this inhumane policy, yet the United States continues to consider Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador safe for asylum seekers. We ask: how many more lives will be lost because of this agreement?