US, Guatemala sign controversial asylum deal

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US President Donald Trump announced an asylum agreement with Guatemala days after threatening tariffs on the small Central American country if it did not sign on

US President Donald Trump announced an asylum agreement with Guatemala days after threatening tariffs on the small Central American country if it did not sign on (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Washington (AFP) - The United States and Guatemala signed a controversial asylum agreement on Friday, days after President Donald Trump threatened tough retaliation against the small Central American country if it did not sign on.

The so-called "safe third country" agreement, requiring US-bound migrants who enter Guatemala to seek asylum there instead, will "provide safety to legitimate asylum seekers and stop asylum fraud," Trump told reporters.

"This landmark agreement will put the coyotes and smugglers out of business," the president said, referring to people who have trafficked thousands of migrants through Mexico to the southern US border.

"These are bad people... sick and deranged people," he said.

Trump blasted Guatemala earlier this week saying it backed out of a deal intended to slow the flow of undocumented migrants into the United States -- threatening to retaliate against the country with a travel ban, tariffs, remittance fees or "all of the above."

Friday's agreement, signed in the Oval Office by Guatemala's interior minister, Enrique Degenhart, and US Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, would likely apply to Salvadoran or Honduran migrants passing through Guatemala towards the United States.

US authorities have recorded a dramatic rise in detentions of migrants over the past year, mainly of them fleeing chronic poverty and gruesome gang violence in Central America.

It was not immediately clear how the agreement signed Friday would jibe with a provision of Guatemala's constitutional court, which recently blocked the idea of a deal making Guatemala a "safe third country" for asylum requests.

The non-governmental organization Refugees International called the deal "very alarming" and said it would put "some of the most vulnerable people in Central America in grave danger."

"Guatemala is in no way safe for refugees and asylum seekers," the group's president Eric Schwartz said in a statement.

"Such an arrangement would make a mockery of the notion that those fleeing persecution in Central America have any recourse."