Last month, the Trump administration announced the latest in a trio of bilateral agreements effectively barring refugees coming through Central America from seeking asylum in the United Sates. These agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and now Honduras, known as “safe third country” agreements, allow the U.S. to send back asylum-seekers who pass these countries on their way to the U.S. but do not apply for asylum there first. At first glance, this may seem like just one more way that the Trump administration is trying to keep refugees out—a diplomatic version of the president’s tactical snake fantasy. Nor do the agreements seem that different from how the EU tries to prevent refugees from seeking asylum. Indeed, a year ago I wrote about how Donald Trump sending troops to the Southern broader was consistent with a broader global trend of hollowing out asylum norms.
But this is different. These new agreements flout global asylum norms in a way others have not dared: They send refugees directly back into the danger they were fleeing in the first place.
A safe third country agreement is meant to be just that: safe. It provides a way for states to send refugees to an alternative (third) destination without sending them home, a practice that is prohibited under international law. While they have yet to be implemented, in the past three months, the United States has strong-armed Central America’s Northern Triangle countries into signing third-country agreements. Under the terms of these agreements asylum-seekers who pass through Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras on their way to the U.S. (which anyone traveling by land has to do) could be sent back from the U.S. border to one of those countries, so long as they are not a citizen of that country. So, while Honduran asylum-seekers would not be sent back to Honduras, they could be sent to Guatemala or El Salvador. Mexico has refused to sign a similar agreement, however the Trump administration has already begun implementing a new set of rules with regard to Mexico called the Migrant Protection Protocols. One of the stipulations of the MPP requires asylum-seekers who make it to the U.S. Southern border to stay in Mexico while they wait for the U.S. to process their claims.
On the surface, these policies look rather similar to the EU’s approach to asylum. Like the agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the EU’s Dublin Regulation requires that all asylum-seekers entering the EU apply for asylum in the first country they reach in the union. The 2016 EU-Turkey deal also has a “safe third country” component, such that certain migrants passing through Turkey on their way to Greece can be sent back (though migrants are still allowed to apply for asylum when they reach the EU). Similar to the MPP, the EU has also said it is going to explore the use of “regional disembarkation platforms” such that refugees would have to wait in another country while their claims for asylum in Europe are evaluated.
The Trump approach, however, is much worse. First, the Dublin Regulation dictates which countries in the EU will provide asylum to those with valid claims; the new arrangements between the U.S. and the Northern Triangle countries dictate that U.S. will not provide asylum to certain individuals with valid claims. Put another way, in many ways the EU’s Schengen zone operates as a single governing body—there are common laws, a single currency, and freedom of mobility across states. Once you cross the border into one Schengen zone country, you are free to travel to the others without showing a passport. The Dublin Regulation, then, lets asylum-seekers into the European Union, but it cuts people off from arriving in one member state, for example Greece, and continuing on to apply for asylum in another, say Germany.
But there is no North American Union. The U.S. cedes its sovereignty to no one. And the administration is not saying refugees can enter the U.S., but they must stay in Arizona rather than go to New York. Instead, the agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras allow the U.S. to say that it will not provide asylum to certain people. If you can’t afford a plane ticket and show up at the Southern border, the United States does not have to hear your case. This is in direct contravention to the 1951 convention on refugees that requires states to provide asylum to those who qualify without discrimination. Refugee rights activists claim that the third safe country agreement between the U.S. and Canada is in breach of international asylum law for the same reason. The difference, though, is that asylum-seekers enjoy equally safe haven in the U.S. as the do in Canada (though some in Canada are questioning how safe the U.S. really is).
This brings us to the second, and most important issue, with the Trump administration’s policies.
Both the MPP and the agreements with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala send asylum-seekers to places where their lives remain in danger. In some cases, it is precisely the same danger they were trying to flee. The violence from which people in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are fleeing stems from transnational criminal organizations, like MS-13 and MS-18. Per the United States’ own 2018 human rights report on Honduras, these transnational gangs “committed killings, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and intimidation of police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders.” These organizations are not limited by borders. They operate throughout the Northern Triangle region. Gangs targeting someone in Honduras could easily get to that person if they were sent to Guatemala. Therefore, sending someone fleeing violence in Honduras to apply for asylum in Guatemala or El Salvador keeps them in harm’s way—the same harm.
While the MPP, which forces migrants to remain in Mexico, might not keep asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle directly in the grasp of gangs like MS-13 and MS-18 that operate in the Northern Triangle, it does place them into a highly dangerous context. As has been extensively reported, gangs local to Mexico are targeting asylum-seekers with kidnapping, extortion, and violence. The U.S. knows how unsafe these places are, having issued its highest level of security warnings against travel to some of the cities in Mexico where migrants are being kept.
Sending refugees back into the line of fire attacks the foundation of the international asylum regime: the norm of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is the prohibition against states sending individuals to any territory in which there is threat of persecution or torture—country of origin or otherwise. Per the 1951 Refugee Convention, non-refoulement prohibits states from expelling or returning a refugee “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The 1984 Convention Against Torture also prohibits refoulement, in some ways expanding its strength and application, stating that states cannot “expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Such grounds include a “consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.”
Without non-refoulement, asylum is moot.
There are any number of things wrong with the Dublin Regulation and the EU-Turkey agreement, but the one line neither of these arrangements cross directly is defying non-refoulement. Requiring refugees to apply for asylum in Greece rather than proceeding on to Germany impinges on the spirit of refugee law and endangers refugees, but it doesn’t refoule them. With the EU-Turkey agreement, many observers have challenged the designation of Turkey as a safe third country given that the Turkish government has been accused of imprisoning migrants and sending refugees back to Syria. Turkey has outright stated that one of the goals of its military incursion into Syria is to send refugees back to recaptured territory. The veil of non-refoulement in this case is whisper thin. But at least in sending refugees to Turkey, the EU is not forcing Syrian refugees directly back into the line of fire from which they originally fled. Neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces nor the myriad rebel groups active in Syria are equally active in Turkey.
The Trump administration’s new policies, on the other hand, outright deny that non-refoulement is a rule the U.S. needs to follow—at least for a particular class of people. There is no pretending that Mexico is safe when migrants are being attacked left and right. By flouting non-refoulement, the U.S. threatens the principle on which the entire asylum system rests.
And the world is watching. If the United States can send asylum-seekers back into danger, why can’t other countries do the same? While the Trump administration’s policies are likely illegal, and are currently being challenged in court, there is reason to fear the administration will be allowed to proceed unchecked. A recent order from the U.S. Supreme Court allows the administration to continue implementing these policies until a final decision on their legality is reached. In the meantime, many asylum-seekers are living in danger.
Finding a way to deal with displacement crises requires political leadership. For once, the U.S. is taking on this leadership role, setting a road map for how countries can respond to asylum claims. It just so happens that the proposal is to pull the one thread that could unravel the asylum system as we know it.