Next Steps After Regional Refugee Conference in Honduras
By Eleanor Acer
On Thursday evening in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, I watched as a number of Central American states adopted a declaration agreeing to work together to address the regional refugee and displacement crisis. Part of a Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (CRPSF), the San Pedro Sula Declaration is a step towards the development of the Global Compact on Refugees expected in 2018.
The Central American countries committed to take a number of steps during the course of the negotiations. These steps—described by the UN Refugee Agency—include improving reception conditions, strengthening asylum systems, creating opportunities for self-reliance and local integration of refugees, and supporting the resilience of host communities and communities at risk.
It’s certainly important for these countries—Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Panama and Mexico— to agree to work together in a comprehensive manner on this crucial issue. The effort was supported by UNHCR and the Organization of American States, as well as by other UN agencies, the ICRC, IOM, the Inter American faith communities, civil society organizations, and many other stakeholders. States made some specific commitments, and in some cases described ongoing efforts.
Certainly, more concrete commitments—and action—will be necessary to resolve this crisis. The failure of El Salvador to join in the declaration, along with its failure during Thursday’s regional conference in San Pedro Sula to even discuss its massive internal displacement, was a particularly glaring gap. Yet, despite the short-comings, the conference, the CRPSF, and the declaration are all positive developments.
As a representative of a U.S. based human rights organization, I was particularly interested to hear what the United States—not a party to the declaration—would commit to do to support this effort. It is certainly very much in the interest of the United States to bolster it.
The United States outlined some of its on-going efforts, through foreign assistance, to help address root causes of displacement and support integration of returnees in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as to counter smuggling and trafficking. It also asserted a commitment to resettlement, a jarring assertion given the timing: one day after the Trump Administration’s announcement that, in addition to cutting refugee resettlement by more than half, it would curtail resettlement of refugees from Syria and a number of other Muslim-majority countries.
The United States also cited its commitment to continue to help spur the development of strong asylum systems in the region so refugees don’t “take dangerous journeys.” Human Rights First, in a report issued a few months ago, identified critical flaws in Mexico’s asylum system and recommended that the United States support the development of effective asylum processes there and throughout the region.
Strikingly, American officials made no mention of the fact that the United States has provided refuge through its asylum system to many who have fled the violence in the region. Thousands of asylum seekers and refugees from Central America have entered—or tried to enter—the United States. Some have been granted asylum or other forms of protection. Many others are stuck waiting in long U.S. asylum backlogs. Still others are held in U.S. immigration detention and subjected to criminal prosecutions in violation of Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.
While U.S. attendance and engagement at the conference was important, U.S. commitments to support the effort fell far short. The United States should significantly increase aid, both to address root causes and improve access to asylum in Mexico and across the region. It should also increase—rather than cut—resettlement of at risk refugees and vulnerable children from the region. Most critically, as the United States looks to other countries in the Americas to develop effective and accessible asylum systems, it must safeguard access to its own. These and other recommendations are detailed in this list of recommendations from a number of U.S. human rights and refugee protection organizations.
The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress should abandon efforts to block the access of refugees to U.S. asylum processing—whether through safe third-country agreement with Mexico or other hurdles—and stop punishing asylum seekers through the use of immigration detention and criminal prosecutions for illegal entry and reentry.
The successful adoption next year of compacts on refugees and migrants will be mutually reinforcing, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Special Representative for International Migration explained earlier this month. Moreover, adherence to human rights and refugee law facilitates increased cooperation and collaboration in addressing refugee and displacement crises and contributes to global stability. By supporting the comprehensive framework and the development of the Global Compacts on Refugees and Global Compact on Migrants, the United States will not only safeguard the human rights of vulnerable people, but also advance its interests by increasing protection opportunities in the region.