U.S. plan to make Guatemala take asylum seekers called ludicrous by rights group

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY, June 14 (Reuters) - A U.S. plan to make asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador seek refuge in Guatemala instead of the United States would endanger, not protect, refugees, a prominent rights group said on Friday as U.S. negotiators met Guatemalan officials.

U.S. rights group Human Rights First said it was "simply ludicrous" for the United States to assert that Guatemala was capable of protecting refugees, when its own citizens are fleeing violence.

"The Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to block, bar and punish refugees for attempting to seek asylum in the United States," said Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First.

"These policies put the lives of refugees in great danger."

Guatemala, like its neighbors Honduras and El Salvador, suffers high levels of violence, driven largely by transnational street gangs including MS-13, which operate across borders in all three countries. Many asylum seekers cite gang threats as the reason they come to the United States for refuge.

Tens of thousands of people have left Guatemala to seek U.S. asylum this year. Nearly 150,000 undocumented Guatemalan families have reached the U.S. border since October, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many of them citing fear of violence in their home country for seeking asylum.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said this week the two nations had a deal under which Guatemala would take asylum seekers from neighbors. "They ought to be willing to apply for asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive," he said.

Details of the plan have not been made public, and Guatemala has not publicly confirmed talks that the U.S. State Department said were taking place in Guatemala on Friday.

The talks were about a range of initiatives aimed at reducing illegal immigration, including "improved asylum processing," a State Department spokeswoman said on Friday in response to a Reuters question about the Guatemala asylum plan.

The emerging plans flow from a U.S.-Mexican deal struck to avert tariffs threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump to push Mexico to do more to stem immigration through its territory.

That deal included sending 6,000 members of Mexico's National Guard to the border and expanding a separate asylum program under which U.S. asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings.

If those measures fail, Mexico has agreed to consider becoming a "safe third country" where all asylum seekers passing through the country would have to apply for refuge, instead of the United States

Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said other countries should share the load, including Guatemala.

Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, has little experience receiving large numbers of asylum seekers and a large wave of refugees would strain limited resources. Just 262 people applied for refugee status in Guatemala between January and November 2018, according to data from the U.N. rights agency UNHCR.

By comparison, nearly 155,000 families from El Salvador and Honduras have been apprehended at the U.S. border since October, with many of them requesting asylum.

Guatemala holds presidential elections on Sunday, after a campaign that has highlighted the lack of rule of law in the country, including the influence of drug traffickers on politics in the country.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)