US asylum ban pushes migrants to ‘unsafe’ third countries

US asylum ban pushes migrants to ‘unsafe’ third countries

The administration’s migration policies are exacerbating the situation along the southern border.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The US Supreme Court has ruled to allow the Trump administration to enforce a highly restrictive asylum policy that will put thousands of Central American migrants at risk.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The new asylum policy will effectively ban all non-Mexican asylum claims to the US and further overwhelm capacity at the border
– Asylum seekers will be forced to remain in countries that cannot provide adequate protection
– The humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border will likely continue to deteriorate
– The legality of the ban will continue to be challenged in the court system

Cracking down on immigration along the southern border has consistently been prioritised by US President Donald Trump. Controversial policies enacted since early 2017 have brought considerable attention to the issue, and a rapid increase in border apprehensions early this year led Trump to declare a state of emergency at the US–Mexico border in February. The administration has recently pocketed two significant wins in the Supreme Court. The nation’s highest legal body ruled in July to allow $2.5 billion of Pentagon funds to be diverted to build the long-promised border wall and upheld the administration’s asylum policy, which continues to be challenged in lower courts.

The policy was originally introduced in July and aims to restrict asylum claims in the US by dismissing claims from any migrant who has passed through a third country without first seeking asylum there. This does not affect Mexican migrants, but those from any other country who arrive at the southern border will now be ineligible to seek asylum in the US. A significant portion of recent migrant flows have arrived from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, an area known as the ‘Northern Triangle’. The ban will hit these populations the hardest as it is estimated that at current rates, nearly 1% of the entire population of Honduras and Guatemala will attempt to migrate to the US by the end of this year.

Additionally, Trump announced last week that the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the US would be reduced from 30,000 to 18,000. This will be the lowest allowance since the modern refugee program was established in 1980, amounting to an 80% decline from the last year of the Obama administration. According to senior administration officials, the US will only accept 1,500 people from the Northern Triangle, compounding the effects of the asylum ban.

REACHING BREAKING POINT

Photo: Shealah Craighead / The White House

While the Supreme Court’s ruling is only a temporary measure — it serves to block injunctions until appeals surrounding the legality of the policy eventually reach the court — it will force thousands of asylum seekers to seek refuge in countries that are ill-equipped to provide protection. While the new policy winds through the courts, it is expected that thousands of migrants will continue to make the journey, only to be turned away at the front of the line. This will further compound the existing crisis at the border, as border protection agencies are already overwhelmed under the existing ‘Remain in Mexico’ program and ‘metering’ policies, which have also been enacted to curb the number of people seeking asylum.

The ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), was first implemented in January to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims were processed. Additionally, ‘metering’ policies limit the number of claims permitted per day at any given legal port of entry, creating massive build-ups in processing centres and often months-long waiting periods. Conditions have deteriorated to what is now nothing less than a humanitarian crisis along the border. Border cities have been compared to war zones and are increasingly unsafe and overcrowded. The current policy has reportedly returned over 42,000 migrants to Mexico as of 1 September, a number that is likely to grow exponentially in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling.

The system appears to be reaching a breaking point as Trump’s policies continue to expand. The number of people in custody along the border has overwhelmed capacity. In June, one CBP official revealed, ‘when we have 4,000 people in custody, we consider that high. When we have 6,000, we consider it a crisis. Right now, we have 19,000 people in custody. It’s just off the charts.’ Inhuman conditions have received considerable media attention, but Trump continues to insist that this is the problem of countries of origin and not the responsibility of the US.

‘UNSAFE’ THIRD COUNTRIES

Photo: Mani Albrecht / U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Trump continues to claim that Mexico and Northern Triangle countries are not doing enough to curb immigration. The administration has previously pledged — and followed through on — threats to withhold aid to the Northern Triangle in the absence of increased efforts to curb immigration flows. Since Trump took office, aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has fallen from $555 million in 2017 to less than $200 million promised this year. This will likely prove counterproductive by increasing insecurity, crime and corruption, factors that are causing people to flee in the first place.

Under threat of US tariffs, the US and Mexico reached a deal in June to curb Central American immigration. The deal expired in September. While border apprehensions were considerably reduced, Mexico’s cooperation and the crackdown were widely criticised as exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. The expansion of the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program and increased militarisation of the border has created a campaign of fear and violence and facilitated human rights violations under the pretext of national security. As more migrants are consistently turned away at the border, this situation is only set to get worse.

Mexico has rejected calls to sign a ‘safe third country’ agreement with the US. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling, the absence of a formal agreement may be inconsequential. The US has previously pushed through such an agreement with Guatemala and is reportedly currently seeking arrangements with El Salvador and Honduras. The ‘safe third country’ agreements would force asylum seekers to remain in these countries, effectively precluding any claims for asylum in the US from those traveling through Central America. As Trump’s asylum ban still faces an uphill legal battle, the pursuit of these agreements would secure his policies. However, these countries are generally considered to be dangerous, and so the policy arguably does not present a meaningful solution to the overall immigration crisis.

The ban is currently being fought in the US legal system. Opponents claim it violates longstanding principles of the Refugee Act of 1980 and international human rights obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Although the final verdict remains a long way off, in the meantime, thousands of migrants will be forced to remain in countries that do not appropriately qualify as ‘safe’.

Trump has hailed the Supreme Court decision as a major victory for his immigration policies and as a cornerstone for his bid for re-election in 2020. He claims new restrictions on refugees will benefit those already in the country — staying true to his ‘America first’ rhetoric — while critics argue it sets a dangerous precedent. Immigration will undoubtedly continue to be at the forefront of US politics in the coming years, with the final outcome of this decision weighing heavily on the future policy outlook.