June 18, 2019 / 8:55 PM / a month ago

Guatemala says it has not pledged to accept U.S.-bound asylum seekers

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala has not yet committed to becoming a “safe third country” for U.S.-bound migrants seeking asylum, but is analysing with the United States how to contain flows of people from Central America, the Interior Minister said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Honduras, part of a new caravan from Central America trying to reach the United States, walk along a road, in Esquipulas, Guatemala January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

U.S. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post on Monday that Guatemala "is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement," suggesting Guatemala could receive asylum seekers here from neighbouring countries.

Trump added on Tuesday that Guatemala was "different" than in past administrations here, without providing details.

“We have not said we accept being a safe third country,” Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart told reporters. “We’re in discussions to find a measure that suits both countries.”

Degenhart said he welcomed that the United States saw Guatemala as a “safe country.”

If Guatemala accepted such an agreement, it would be obliged to process asylum claims from migrants who entered its territory first while en route to another country. That could apply to U.S.-bound Honduran or Salvadoran migrants passing through Guatemala.

Neighbouring Mexico has so far refused to take on the safe third country role despite pressure from Washington to do more to stem migration across its southern border with Guatemala.

Trump has threatened to remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the United States, and this week moved to slash U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras over migration.

When asked about the possible aid cuts, Degenhart said that Guatemala was looking to negotiate with the United States, including securing support to help Guatemala better receive migrants.

“Guatemala ... doesn’t have all the resources. This is one of the reasons that the United States in the short term, and in a responsible way, is calling attention to this support, which is part of what we’re discussing now,” Degenhart said.

Degenhart added that Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua already have a pact allowing for free mobility across their borders. The countries are discussing how to ensure this agreement is used for its original purposes, he said.

Degenhart said the pact “was not designed to be used for massive caravans” of people, referring to the large groups who have been travelling north.

Guatemala is slated to usher in a new president in January who would replace conservative President Jimmy Morales. Last weekend, a first-round vote put centre-left candidate Sandra Torres here in first place for a runoff vote in August.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; writing by Daina Beth Solomon, Dave Graham; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool

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