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The government of El Salvador, the country that sent the most asylum seekers to the US in 2018, signed an agreement on Friday to begin accepting asylum seekers sent back from the US. The move is part of a broader Trump administration strategy to close off any path towards asylum for Central Americans.
“The core of this agreement is an asylum cooperative agreement” Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill in Washington. 'The core of this is recognizing El Salvador's development of their own asylum system and committing to help them build that capacity… as we work together to target irregular migration flows through the region,' McAleenan explained.
The agreement, similar to what the Trump administration signed with the outgoing Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales in July, would force migrants intending to ask for asylum from the US, and who have crossed into Salvadoran territory, to ask for protection in El Salvador. Despite not being named as such, the accord is effectively a “safe third country” agreement.
The Guatemalan deal, which would similarly require migrants seeking asylum to ask for it there first, is still being debated by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, whose members claim that it needs to be ratified before taking effect. Currently, the US is seeking a similar agreement with Honduras. Given the implications--of rapidly expanding their own asylum systems--northern triangle governments are evading the term “safe third country”, though in practice the Salvadoran agreement has the same implications.
McAleenan noted that the agreement signed with El Salvador would 'build on the good work we have accomplished already with El Salvador's neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection... as close as possible to the origin of individuals that need it.”
It was US authorities, not Salvadoran, who provided the details of the agreement. The Salvadoran Ministry of Forgein Affairs issued a press release about an agreement with the Organization of American States about the implementation of a commission against impunity, mentioning in the last paragraph a “bilateral agreement [with the United States] of cooperation to combat crime, strengthen border security, and reduce forced migration.” The statement did not mention the asylum agreement. The move recalled past president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, in 2018, trying to explain the announcement of the cancellation of TPS as one further extension.
In this case there is no room for doubt. In the letter of agreement signed by Hill and McAleenan last August 28, one of the explicit goals was to “build asylum capacity through our partnership” and “increase protection options for vulnerable populations.”
In a telephonic press call the day before the agreement was announced, Mauricio Claver-Carone, a senior advisor to Trump, explained the other possible reasons for these agreements. “If a person is fleeing political persecution in Cuba and crosses into Honduras, that person is no longer persecuted by the Cuban regime while in Honduras. That’s also the case with a Nicaraguan or a Venezuelan crossing through El Salvador. It doesn’t mean that the US is the only country in the world where a person who is being persecuted in their country will not continue to be persecuted,” Claver-Carone said.
In forcing Central Americans to seek refuge in the countries they are fleeing, the US is ignoring the warnings of its own State Department. The US rates its foreign travel advisories between 1 and 4, with 4 qualified as “Do not travel” and 1 “Exercise normal precautions.” Currently, the US State Department recommends that citizens “reconsider travel” to Honduras and El Salvador, with both countries earning a level-3 warning, and they should “exercise increased caution” in Guatemala, which has a level-2 warning.
Last year, the State Department noted in its country report on El Salvador, “allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence; widespread government corruption,” as well as violence against LGBTQ individuals.
Hill’s own statements seem to contradict the idea that El Salvador can offer protection to citizens of other countries. Hill claimed that El Salvador needs help from the US to “attack the gangs that threaten people, kill people, or charge people money just to be able to cross the street.” According to Hill, when people migrate because of insecurity or death threats, “it’s El Salvador’s responsibility because we have not been able to provide sufficient security or opportunities so our own citizens remain [in the country] and prosper.”
The foreign minister said that they signed a document “to work in different areas, but the principle is to protect our people.” She described the agreement as a “win-win” and claimed that it included options to increase legal and safe migration, including more work visas. Asked if they had negotiated a permanent solution to the nearly 200,000 TPS recipients, Hill claimed that they were engaged in “ongoing discussions trying to find alternatives for people who have been in the country for 18 years.” Trump canceled TPS in 2018, though TPS holders are still waiting a final court decision to determine their status.
Neither government released the document to the public, though the Associated Press confirmed that the US would send asylum seekers back to El Salvador once both countries settle on the details and decide on an implementation plan.
The announcement comes just eight days after the launching of a Salvadoran Border Patrol, which was the latest nod from Bukele to the Trump administration. Even before taking office, the Salvadoran President has been very clear in his willingness to acquiesce to Trump’s agenda, even going so far as to affirm that the country is “aligned with the US” and comparing the country to a drug addicted son who is in rehab and needs the help of his father. Hill, in her first press conference after taking office, said, in another nod to the US, “you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
This accord also comes after months of Trump threats to Central American countries to suspend aid if they didn't 'do better' to stop immigration. The administration actually suspended or reallocated over $500 million in Central American aid.
The Trump administration is trying to turn Central America itself into a wall, and El Salvador is signing on
Human Rights organizations quickly criticized the agreement, pointing out that a country expelling refugees--in 2018 El Salvador produced 46,800 asylum seekers, the sixth most of any country in the world--is not adept at protecting people within its own territory. And, while the numbers of Salvadorans detained in the US Southern border have gone down, in 2019 the country has reported a surge of 60 % in its deportees compared to 2018. The explanation is in Mexico, which is currently returning more people to El Salvador than the US itself.
Charanya Krishnaswami, Advocacy Director for Amnesty International, said, “This agreement makes a mockery of the right to asylum. People should not be forced to seek safety in countries where they will not be safe.” “El Salvador has one of the highest rates of violence in the world, including gender-based violence so rampant that Amnesty International declared it one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. It is not safe for its own citizens, much less for asylum-seekers,” Krishnaswami added.
Beyond questions of security, another concern is simply El Salvador’s capacity to process asylum claims. In 2002, El Salvador established a commision (CODER), under the foreign ministry, that would field asylum claims.
Sources within the ministry revealed to El Faro that the Office of Internal Legal Affairs is the agency that oversees CODER, while only a single officer works directly with asylum claims. One officer in the whole country. In 2016, former foreign minister Hugo Martínez claimed that El Salvador had approved 49 asylum claims “in recent years,” without specifying the time period. This lack of capacity is another resemblance to Guatemala: VICE reported that the country 'has just four asylum officers and hasn’t resolved a case in nearly two years'.
Geoff Thale, Vice President for Program of WOLA, said that “the Trump administration is trying to turn Central America itself into a wall. It’s immoral and inhumane to trap those seeking asylum in a region not equipped to adequately process their claims, to keep them safe, and to guarantee decent living conditions.”
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, asked, “Where will they declare a haven for asylum seekers next? Syria? North Korea? This is cynical and absurd.” Schwartz added, “This agreement will do nothing to stop families seeking a better life in a safe place, and will instead further endanger vulnerable women, men, and children.”