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Central America Faces Coronavirus While Deportations Are in the Balance

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Date: Mar 20, 2020

Author: Lisa Haugaard

As Central American countries started to report COVID-19 cases, governments reacted in diverse ways.  El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala issued restrictions on people entering their countries, even closing airports.  Governments ordered some businesses, schools, and public transport closed and prohibited events.  As of March 19, 2020, 259 cases were reported in Central America, with the largest numbers reported in Costa Rica and Panama, though that may reflect better availability of testing in those countries.

Human rights advocates cautioned about the tendencies of some of the region’s governments to inappropriately declare states of emergency and exception and warned that they could be used to repress freedom of expression.  UN human rights experts noted that while emergency powers can be used in response to significant threats,  “emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.”

Salvadorans returning from other countries were quarantined in shelters.  According to El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman, most were placed in the shelters without being tested, thus potentially exposing healthy people to those suffering from COVID-19.

In Honduras, the government declared a state of exception and deployed military on the streets.  Members of the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP) patrolled and even entered houses in the Lincoln neighborhood in Comayaguela, where some cases of COVID-19 were reported.  Curfews kept people confined to their neighborhoods in some cities.  The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights criticized the Honduran government’s suspension of freedom of expression as “disproportionate” and limiting the rights of the citizenry to accurate information about COVID-19.   The Honduran legislature rushed through a bill aimed at expanding hospital capacity and health services. Some medical experts and NGOs asserted it lacked safeguards on spending and contracting to ensure that this funding did not fuel more corruption. The National Anti-Corruption Council warned citizens to be alert for “corruption in times of coronavirus.”

Health systems in many Central American countries are fragile.  In Honduras, where an already weak health care system has been undermined by massive governmental corruption, health services are already struggling to address the current dengue epidemic in which some 200 people have died.  Lack of clean water in poor neighborhoods throughout the region makes the admonition to wash hands impossible to follow. “Our president asked us to wash our hands very well, but how?  When here we don’t even have water,” said a community leader in the outskirts of Guatemala City.  And basic food security for those who lose their jobs or livelihoods is already a mounting concern.

“Those who can work from home are the lucky ones, as compared to the rest of the women and men who give up their livelihoods to the quarantine or keep working under conditions that put their health at risk.  The latter include healthcare professionals, first responders, care-givers for the elderly, and all those tasked with keeping the cities clean and safe,” noted Alianza Americas—speaking about the unequal impact of the pandemic whether in Central America, the United States, or elsewhere.

The capacity of U.S. humanitarian agencies to respond to the challenges of coronavirus in Central America has been undermined by the Trump Administration’s aid hold up starting a year ago to put pressure on Northern Triangle governments to stop migration.  Humanitarian agencies have laid off staff and shut down their programs, and even with new U.S. funding, it would take them time to scale back up.

Controversy over Deportations

As cases of coronavirus started appearing in Central America, the U.S. government insisted on continuing deportations of Central Americans, despite concern that this could increase the spread of COVID-19.  This included both deportations of people back to their own countries and deportations of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and other asylum seekers to Guatemala, which signed an “Asylum Cooperative Agreement” (ACA) or “safe third country” agreement with the United States to accept deported asylum seekers from other countries.  These deportations kept happening even as the overwhelmed main shelter in Guatemala City shut its doors to new arrivals.

Migrant shelter staff and civil society organizations in several countries urged the United States to suspend deportations. “’When we talk about migrants, we are talking about vulnerable people without resources,’ said Mauro Verzeletti, director of migrant shelter Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City,” speaking to Al Jazeera.  Verzeletti “said that migrants could be more likely to contract the disease after long, grueling journeys to the US that weaken their immune systems and put them in tight, often unsanitary spaces in detention.”

As the days passed, Northern Triangle governments started to refuse deportations. On March 10, Honduras refused to admit more flights of deported Hondurans from Mexico, although it continued to accept them via land from Mexico and via air from the United States. Then it stopped all flights when it closed its airports for a week.  On March 17, the Guatemalan government stopped all flights of deportees, stating the U.S. government did not have in place adequate safeguards to screen deportees for COVID-19.  Under pressure from the United States, on March 19 Guatemala began again accepting deportation flights with its own citizens, although it refused to accept deportees from other countries under the Asylum Cooperative Agreement.  On March 18, El Salvador stopped accepting deportees from the United States and Mexico.  It is not clear how long governments will refuse deportations if the U.S. government keeps pressure up to restart them.

Even as the coronavirus epidemic was spreading in the Americas, the U.S. government kept working out the final details on an accord to make El Salvador, like Guatemala, a “safe third country” for deported asylum seekers. On March 12, Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Mark Morgan told El Faro that negotiations between the United States and El Salvador establishing El Salvador as a safe third country for asylum seekers from other countries were “going well, and I have no doubt that El Salvador is prepared and we are betting that the asylum accord will be on line literally any day now.”  The Trump Administration estimates El Salvador can take in 2,000 deported asylum seekers every year despite the fact that Salvadorans continue to flee the country and its nascent asylum system only granted asylum to 28 people from 2014 through 2018.

The Trump Administration announced it would shut its borders to migrants, and countries like Guatemala announced measures to stop migrants transiting through, although news reports suggested the measures were not yet having an impact. Applying a blanket restriction on asylum seekers even in a case like the COVID-19 pandemic violates international guidelines according to the UN Refugee Agency.

As noted in the Guardian, “temporary restrictions – and the fear of crowded public spaces – may cause a drop in migration northwards. But the long-term economic impact of the crisis could lead to a reduction in remittances from the US, and an increase in unemployment in the region, forcing more people to head north out of economic desperation.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic affects the Americas, we need to keep a close watch on how governments serve and protect their people.  We also need to keep an eye on ways that governments take advantage of emergency measures for repression or corruption—or use it to further an anti-immigrant agenda.