March 17, 2020 / 6:12 PM / 19 days ago

Guatemala suspends deportation, asylum flights from U.S

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala has suspended flights into the country carrying Guatemalans and other nationalities deported from the United States under a deal with Washington, the government said on Tuesday, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The deportations have formed part of U.S. pressure on Central American countries to shoulder the burden of stopping illegal immigration, which U.S. President Donald Trump has made a keystone of his re-election campaign.

In a statement, Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry said it had suspended the flights until proper sanitary protocols could be established in the country to permit the safe return of the people to their places of origin.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo said the flights would be halted for the duration of a “state of calamity” declared in the country, which is due to end on April 6.

Under pressure from Trump, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - the countries responsible for the bulk of illegal immigration north - agreed last year to deals with Washington that oblige them to accept migrants seeking asylum.

Of the three, only Guatemala had so far implemented its agreement, under which about 1,000 Hondurans and Salvadorans seeking asylum in the United States have been sent to Guatemala to seek refuge there instead.

Human rights advocates have been critical of the agreements, saying that the trio of violent and impoverished countries were not well placed to provide asylum to vulnerable migrants.

A final flight of deportees arrived in Guatemala on Monday from Brownsville, Texas, with 56 Guatemalans and 17 Salvadorans on board, the Guatemalan government said.

The decision to suspend the flights came after the Casa de Migrante shelter, a non-governmental reception center for deportees, said it was suspending activities to control the coronavirus.

It was not immediately clear if deportation flights to Honduras were also suspended.

Asked by Reuters whether flights of deportees to Honduras were halted, Deputy Foreign Minister Nelly Jerez said only that the country’s airports were closed, without giving further details.

El Salvador’s government did not respond to a question on whether deportations of its migrants would be halted. El Salvador’s main airport will be closed from Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately comment on the Guatemalan government’s announcement.

The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said U.S. authorities had provided information on added sanitary measures to ensure that no deportees with symptoms of the coronavirus were sent back.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney

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