Failed 'safe third country' agreements, Northern Triangle hits record number of migrants to the US


25 | 10 | 2021


The Trump administration tried to stop migration from Central America with agreements that were barely honoured and have been overtaken by an overflowing border.

In the picture

A US border guard inspects a drainage tunnel between Nogales (Arizona) and Mexico [CBP, Josh Denmark].

During 2021, the record number of migrants attempting to enter the United States through its southern border was broken. The previous record in 2019 led President Trump to sign controversial agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that gave them the status of 'safe third countries' and obliged them to take in migrants sent back by the US while their asylum requests were being resolved. The agreement was only executed by Guatemala, where, moreover, only 700 migrants arrived. Now that the agreements have failed, the Biden Administration has terminated them and today, after a 2020 with limited movement due to Covid-19, more migrants than ever are arriving at the US border.

The United States closed the 2021 fiscal year (October 2020 to September 2021) with the highest issue number of detainees at its southern border, indicating unprecedented migratory pressure. If already in 2019, with Trump in the White House, successive Central American caravans contributed to a record number of "encounters" (that fiscal year there were 977,509, twice as many as in a normal year), in 2021 the total number has reached 1,734,686, according to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the US border authority.

The highest number of attempts to enter the US intercepted during 2021 corresponded to Mexicans, who this time doubled (655,594) the previous year's record, consolidating their recovery as the first national group by far. They are followed by Hondurans (319,324), Guatemalans (283,035) and Salvadorans (98,690). Although the news in recent months has been the overcrowding of Haitians in places adjacent to the border, the most constant group on their march northwards continues to be - apart from Mexicans - migrants from the Central American Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), demonstrating the failure of the attempt to force these countries and also Mexico to take back migrants while the US resolved their asylum requests.

In the picture

The two tables on the left are taken from the US CBP website; those on the right are taken from data of the countries themselves.

Safe third country

The agreement Asylum Cooperation Agreement (ACA) was a set of agreements made between the United States and the Northern Triangle countries under the administration of former President Donald Trump in September 2019. The agreements involved the reception in these countries of migrants deported from the US, with the aim of providing them with refuge and asylum, granting these states the status of 'safe third country'. It was not explicitly clear from the agreements whether the signatory countries were the migrant's final destination, or only temporary while the asylum claim in the US was being assessed. In either case, this implied that the asylum seeker had to spend an indeterminate period of time in the countries to which they were redirected. The purpose of this agreement was to alleviate the migratory pressure on the southern border of the United States, which was part of Trump's presidential strategy. 

A similar management was carried out by the Trump Administration with Mexico, begun in early 2019, under the name of the Migrant Protection Protocols by which, in principle, all non-Mexican nationals arriving at the border with the United States were returned to Mexico, where they had to await the resolution of their case. The subsequent agreement with the governments of the Northern Triangle was intended to share some of the effort Mexico was already making to reduce the migratory pressure on the United States.

Under the agreements, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were required to combat mutual security threats, drug trafficking and migration flows. The Central American governments were forced to accept the conditions, otherwise the US would threaten them with tariff increases, remittance taxes and travel bans. However, their status of lack of security, high unemployment and poverty contradicted the 'safe third country' character they were being granted, as these are countries that are not even capable of guaranteeing a decent life and a decent future for most of their own population. 

Poor implementation

Coinciding with a time of very limited national movements due to Covid-19, with borders closed in many cases, initially the very advertisement of the agreements had a brief deterrent effect. However, the decline in the flow of migrants was temporary, as the agreements were poorly implemented. Of the three countries, only Guatemala actually ended up hosting migrants sent back by the US, receiving approximately 700 migrants from Honduras and El Salvador. In neither of the other two countries did agreement become effective, demonstrating once again the inability and lack of resources needed to deal with a task of such magnitude as the reception and maintenance of hundreds of people. 

Nor would Guatemala end up complying with requirements, according to research carried out by Human Rights Watch in 2020, as migrants themselves refused to stay on Guatemalan territory due to distrust of the authorities and the proximity to their own places of origin. After all, in Guatemala they remained in the same circumstances for which they had chosen to leave their homeland. 

The established migration negotiations were widely criticised for the lack of transparency about the commitments made by the participating governments, and for the objective inadequacy of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, from where populations migrate due to gang violence, among other reasons, to be classified as a 'safe third country'. The Biden administration proceeded early on to terminate the agreements.

Based on the statistics collected, of the three countries, El Salvador is the one with the highest number of emigrants, reaching almost a quarter of the population in 2019, while in the case of Guatemala it was 6.85% and in Honduras, 8.20%. Of these, the majority seek to go to the US: 89.2% of Salvadoran migrants, 88.8% of Guatemalans and 81.9% of Hondurans. In terms of the sex of migrants from these countries, it can be observed that in both Guatemala and El Salvador the male-female ratio is fairly equal, while in Honduras women migrate slightly more.