Guatemala has become a transit country for migrants seeking to reach the United States, but it is also a hub for those seeking refuge. Hundreds of migrants remain trapped waiting to be considered as refugees. The chances of receiving a positive response are slim, especially for the LGBTQ community.
GUATEMALA CITY — Madelyn is a 22-year-old trans woman. In Nov. 2021, she migrated from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, to Guatemala City after being repeatedly harassed and attacked by gang members in her country.
Every year, hundreds of migrants arrive in Guatemala to request refuge. In 2019, there were 494 people; in 2020, 487; in 2021, 1,054 and 70 more in Jan. 2022 alone. Everyone must wait at least two years for a resolution, and migration statistics reveal that only 1.7 out of 10 migrants receive a yes as an answer to their asylum request. The situation is more dramatic for applicants from the LGBTQ community because only 2 out of 100 people are accepted.
“They beat me, my whole face was injured and I have proof. I decided to migrate because I was afraid that something more serious would happen to me," she said. "I have other colleagues who have been beaten and others who have been killed when they were working.”
New country, same risks
Madelyn came to Guatemala to seek help from migrant organizations and was sent to a shelter, where she stayed for 11 weeks while she processed her refugee request.
Life while waiting is a limbo. The migrants live without a document that allows them to work or access health services and the most vulnerable live in shelters to protect themselves.
“I am looking for asylum here, but I feel that it is not very convenient for me to stay because it seems that the same type of people live here as in Honduras and because I do not know Guatemala. I don't know what the dangerous areas are, where I can be and where I can't," she says because she thinks that she is not guaranteed to live free of violence.
And she's right. Guatemala is not a safe country, as documented in the 2020 National Human Development Report, carried out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which was not published on time because Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei censored it. This Central American country ends up forcing its own inhabitants to flee the country due to poverty, social inequality, the deterioration of the population's living conditions, socio-environmental vulnerability, and criminal violence. It is estimated that around 300 people leave Guatemala every day seeking to reach the United States without documents, according to the Guatemalan National Council for Migrant Assistance (Conamigua).
She thinks that she is not guaranteed to live free of violence.
This is Madelyn's second attempt to migrate to a place where she can feel safe. When she was 18 years old, she traveled by bus from Honduras and when she arrived at Tecún Umán, the border between Guatemala and Mexico, she was attacked by unknown men. For this reason, she returned to her country, where she once again encountered the same violence that forced her to flee.
In 2021, when she was 22 years old, she crossed her country again to Izabal, Guatemala, where, running out of money, she hitchhiked trucks that took her to the city. There she looked for the shelter where she was interviewed for this journalistic report.
“In Honduras, I worked in the sex work industry, but I migrated because I also want to leave that life behind and start again, look for a job doing whatever it takes to buy my stuff,” she says.
Only 3% of the people who obtained refuge in Guatemala from 2002 to 2022 are from the LGBTQ1+ community.
A flawed process
According to statistics from the Guatemalan Migration Institute (IGM), like Madelyn, 3,239 people applied for refuge in Guatemala, from January 2002 to January 2022, and only 573 obtained it — only 17%. 56% of those who have been recognized as refugees are women, 41% men and 3% of the population are from the LGBTQ community.
The report "What Happens When You Look Like This", by Human Rights Watch (HRW), documented that within the framework of the Cooperation Agreement on Asylum (ACA), which Guatemala signed with the United States during the administration of Donald Trump, 939 asylum seekers, men and women, from Honduras and El Salvador were sent to Guatemala, a country that "is not capable of providing effective protection to asylum seekers, including marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ people."
Of those 939 people, only 2% requested refuge in Guatemala and no one obtained it.
The report points out that this Central American country has a rudimentary and complicated asylum procedure that was not prepared to receive dozens of new applications.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred asylum seekers to Guatemala with virtually no consideration of whether they faced a risk of persecution in that country, including on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said HRW.
The investigation of this organization coincides with Madelyn's concern: that of suffering the same violence in Guatemala that she suffered in her country. The document points out that: “For a Salvadoran or Honduran LGBT person, facing forced relocation to Guatemala, where there was the possibility of having to face similar forms of persecution and similar indifference or hostility from the Guatemalan authorities as they had suffered in their countries of origin, constituted a devastating setback."
In addition to Central Americans, there were 182 migrants from Venezuela, 196 from Cuba, 99 from Nepal, 63 from Colombia, 46 from Mexico, 14 from the United States, 11 from China, 6 from Russia, 2 from Jordan, 2 from Palestine, 1 from Jamaica and 1 person from Ukraine.
Most migrants who received a favorable response are from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Stop the flow
Since President Alejandro Giammattei took office as president of Guatemala, the country has also become a wall for migrants traveling in caravans from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The expulsion of migrants has increased by 328% with the new government. According to statistics from the Guatemalan Migration Institute, in 2020, 454 migrants were expelled from the country and in 2021 that figure rose to 1,492.
In Jan. 2021, the National Police and members of the army built a human fence to prevent the passage of more than 5,000 people seeking to cross the territory on foot. Hundreds were returned to the border with Honduras in government buses, while others, concentrated in small groups, looked for blind spots to pass.
Guatemala has become a wall for migrants
Since then, that has been the strategy of the government of this country to stop the flow to the United States. In Jan. 2022, some 300 people leaving San Pedro Sula in Honduras were captured when they crossed into Guatemala. This was the first caravan of the year dissolved in the country.
President Alejandro Giammattei's government is trying to stop immigration to the U.S.
Asociación Lambda is an NGO that provides assistance to LGBTQ migrants seeking refuge in Guatemala. Between 2019 and 2021, Lambda accompanied the petition of 400 people and only 6 cases, 1.5% were resolved positively. That is, only 2 out of 100 people received a yes, while most are still waiting for a response or abandon the process in despair.
The law establishes that the procedure to obtain refuge in Guatemala lasts between 3 and 6 months, but the reality is different. Before the pandemic, the process took an average of one year and now the response can come up to two years later, according to estimates by Lambda, which has accompanied these processes for LGBTQ people.
*You can read the full story in Spanish by Agencia Ocote, part of the special series "The New Paths of Central American Migration", promoted by members of the media alliance Otras Miradas. The investigation had the support of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.