Just before Thanksgiving, the Trump administration began carrying out one of its strangest and most callous policies to date: sending would-be asylees who show up at the US-Mexico border to Guatemala under what it calls a “safe third country” agreement.
The United States forged this deportation pact with Guatemala largely in secret and is working to implement similar agreements with the governments of such balmy destinations as Honduras and El Salvador and, if the US gets its way, Mexico and Panama. The idea behind the policy is that asylum seekers ought to seek refuge in the first country they pass through on the way to their final destination. It’s comparable to the European Union’s Dublin regulation, which requires migrants’ asylum claims to be processed in the nation of their first port of entry—and it’s no coincidence that both place a disproportionate burden on the regions’ peripheral, southern, and poorer states.
Unlike the EU countries of first resort, though, there’s nothing safe about the places Trump is sending people to. Far from it. These are states that large numbers of people routinely flee in order to escape violence, poverty, and unrest in their own right. The point is not—and never was—safety. What the agreement does is make it virtually impossible for anyone from Latin America to seek asylum in this country, thereby reducing legal immigration to the US to the bare minimum.
The temptation to slam the door on unwanted populations—let them land where they may—has a long and brutish history in our country and elsewhere. In theory, this was supposed to have changed after World War II, when the nations of the world came up with systems to ensure they would do a better job protecting those threatened and displaced by war. The idea was simple: People have “the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and should not be sent back to a country where they would face such persecution. The problem is that many states don’t really want to take in the world’s victimized and persecuted, not if they’re poor and, increasingly, not if they’re black or brown. So nations come up with work-arounds, sketchy adaptations like Trump’s “safe” third-country agreements, to avoid the legal scaffolds the international community built to ensure that displaced, persecuted, and stateless people would not face the same horrors as they did in the first half of the 20th century.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the US has been adept at pioneering these kinds of end runs around its international obligations. There are plenty of instances from which to pick, but one that resonates is the decision by George H.W. Bush’s administration to turn the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba into a prison for Haitians seeking asylum, several hundred of them HIV positive, rather than allow them to pursue their applications here. It was an early blatant attempt to offshore asylum obligations and a preview of what was to come around the world.
Today, Australia sends migrants to islands it rents from the (ostensibly independent) nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for the sole purpose of mass detentions. The European Union strikes multimillion-euro deals with the Libyan coast guard and its violent militias to prevent migrants from making the trip across the Mediterranean. From 2015 to early 2018, Israel deported 1,700 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Uganda—a move Amnesty International characterized as a way for Israel “to abdicate its responsibility towards the refugees and asylum-seekers under its jurisdiction and shift it to less wealthy countries with bigger refugee populations.”
If there’s a link that connects these many examples, beyond the evident cruelty, it is the way they exploit novel technicalities in the international legal order. They also reflect bigger social and geopolitical currents that have seen our societies grow more financialized, globalized, and individualistic. People aren’t necessarily being sent back to the places they came from or to set locations where they’re expected to start anew alongside others from their communities; rather, they’re being dumped in countries they might never have known, with people they might never have met and whose language they might never have learned. That speaks to how interchangeable Honduras and Guatemala look to Beltway officials. The assumption is that all South and Central Americans are somehow the same, so it matters little which “shithole” (to quote the president) they are sent to.
Moreover, these scenarios turn sovereign territory into a trading chip: Powerful countries can essentially strong-arm weaker states into doing the things they would rather avoid on their own turf. The United States ropes Honduras or El Salvador into fulfilling its international obligations, and those countries don’t have the resources or the clout to say no.
The most extreme example of this kind I’ve encountered takes the dystopia of third-country deportations almost to the level of science fiction. When I was reporting my book, The Cosmopolites, in 2014, I met a stateless activist who had spent the first three decades of his life in the United Arab Emirates state of Ajman. After signing a pro-democracy petition that upset the Emirati government, he was thrown in prison and, after being given a “choice” among a handful of places, was deported to… Thailand.
At the time, I assumed this man was an outlier, the victim of a strange set of circumstances that could occur only in a repressive Gulf monarchy. Now I’m not so sure. If the Trump administration expands its “safe”—or is it “arbitrary”?—third-country agreements against the warnings of human rights groups and international lawyers, it will set a precedent that will inevitably lead to more of these expulsions. Poor, powerless countries will end up absorbing the world’s tired, poor, wretched, and homeless simply because they have been threatened, bribed, or otherwise compelled to do so. And people seeking a safe place to live (for reasons linked to politics, war, climate change, or personal circumstances) will be shunted to nations unable and often unwilling to give them the support they need to survive, let alone lead a good life. Because these resettlement agreements aren’t born of goodwill and diplomacy, a sense of humanitarian purpose, or even noblesse oblige. They are the result of massive geopolitical economic and power imbalances that make a mockery of national sovereignty.
And that’s what makes these arrangements so contrived. The instigators of these xenophobic, anti-migrant ideologies—the Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers of the world, along with the bureaucrats and statesmen who lack the imagination to come up with racist nonsense of their own—invariably talk a big game about restoring a world order friendly to strong borders and national sovereignty. They denounce multilateralism, internationalism, and globalization in favor of nationalistic state control.
Yet this worldview is as hypocritical as it is reprehensible. What these mercenary legal maneuvers prove is that the only borders these men really care about are their own.