U.S. says no plans to send asylum seekers to remote Guatemalan regions

GUATEMALA CITY/WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Saturday that it had no plans to send asylum seekers to remote regions in Guatemala after the Central American country floated the plan during negotiations for a bilateral migration agreement this week.

The two countries are finalizing a deal signed over the summer that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, but who passed first through Guatemala on their journey, back to Guatemala to seek refuge there instead. Most of the migrants subject to the agreement would be from countries in the region, but further south like Honduras and El Salvador.

Guatemala's Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, who met officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday, told Reuters the government was considering accepting arriving asylum seekers at remote airports far from the country’s capital of Guatemala City. The proposal raised concerns among immigration advocates who fear for the safety of vulnerable migrants in places that are potentially far from services. The proposal was first reported by the Washington Post.

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"All airports are being analyzed," Degenhart said in a phone interview with Reuters. "There are some that'll qualify but others that won't." He declined to give further details on the scope of the agreement before concluding discussions with his U.S. counterparts.

Degenhart said the regions could include, but would probably not be limited to, the Peten jungle, a sweltering area in northern Guatemala that borders Mexico and is known to be frequented by drug cartels. He also said the government wanted to decide on the agreement before the new President-elect Alejandro Giammattei takes office in January.

A spokeswoman for the DHS said that Guatemala had proposed utilizing different airports in initial discussions, but that "the U.S. government has no plans to make returns to the airport in Peten at this time."

"We have established procedures for returning Guatemalans to Guatemala, and for a variety of logistical reasons, it is most efficient to use those routes and procedures for this agreement," she said.

The deal is part of a series of agreements and other measures put in place by the Trump administration in an effort to curb the swelling numbers of mostly Central American families that have been arriving at the U.S. southwest border and claiming asylum. Administration officials say many of the claims are ultimately found to be without merit in immigration court. The administration wants asylum seekers that have fled through multiple countries to ask for help in the first place they arrive, not the United States.

The so-called "safe third country" agreement signed in July has not yet been implemented as the two sides iron out details amid opposition in Guatemala.

Incoming president Giammattei criticized the lack of transparency around how the deal is being finalized and told reporters at a press conference on Saturday that his government would evaluate any agreement that was struck by his predecessor.

Guatemala's tiny refugee agency that only has around 10 officials saw a nearly 75% spike in asylum applications between 2017 and 2018, numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show.

Between January and August Guatemala received 296 new asylum applications, close to the same number as in the full year in 2018. Most of the asylum applications were accepted, according to the agency, said Giovanni Bassu, a regional UNHCR representative.

"Right now both asylum seekers and refugees get a work permit and have the same access to social services that nationals do," he said, adding that he did not anticipate the Guatemalan government would provide additional services to people sent from the United States. (Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Ted Hesson in Washington; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher; editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Bill Berkrot, Mica Rosenberg and Diane Craft)