U.S. President Donald Trump used to promise that Mexico would pay for a new wall on the border of the two countries. That hasn’t happened. Now Trump wants Mexico at least to act like a wall, by doing more to keep Central American migrants away from the U.S. With the number of people seeking asylum globally at record levels, due to violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and parts of Africa as well as Central America, similar debates are happening around the world.

1. What is it that Trump expects from Mexico?

He wants it to process and temporarily settle refugees fleeing its southern neighbors, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, even if their ultimate goal is to reach the U.S. and seek asylum. Until recently, these people were largely given free passage across Mexico’s southern border with only occasional legal hassles as they traversed the country to the U.S. border.

2. What has Mexico done?

It deployed more than 6,000 members of its new National Guard to the Guatemala border and bolstered security forces at the U.S. border. It reported apprehending 29,153 undocumented migrants in June, up more than 200% from a year earlier. It agreed to temporarily accept refugees while their asylum claims are being processed in the U.S. But it drew the line at acceding to a July 15 order by Trump that would have the U.S. automatically turn away any asylum-seeker who hadn’t asked for asylum in Mexico while passing through. (Mexico cited the United Nations principle against refoulement.) After meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 21 that Mexico had “made real progress.” Ebrard had said in early June that his country had 45 days to show the U.S. that additional measures weren’t needed.

3. What would the additional measures be?

That isn’t entirely clear. Trump’s initial threat was a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports to the U.S. if Mexico didn’t crack down to his satisfaction. In negotiations, the Trump administration has been pushing Mexico to sign a so-called safe-third-country agreement.

4. What’s meant by safe third country?

It’s a recognition between countries that each is a safe place for refugees from elsewhere. The principle is rooted in United Nations conventions holding that refugees can’t be returned to the countries they fled or to countries in which they can’t “enjoy asylum without any danger.” Such an arrangement exists between the U.S. and Canada, for instance. A safe-third-country agreement between the U.S. and Mexico would mean that Central American migrants claiming refugee status would be required to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than wait until reaching the U.S. But some question whether Mexico really is a safe place for refugees. “The Mexican asylum system is underfunded, absolutely beyond its capacity and inadequate in identifying even valued asylum claims,” Amnesty International U.K. said on Twitter. Trump sought a separate safe-third-country deal with Guatemala, requiring migrants from El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum there, but those talks fell apart.

5. How big is the problem?

Mexico says about 600,000 migrants traveled through the country to the U.S. border between January and May. U.S. border officials apprehended about 133,000 people at the border in May, triple the amount from a year earlier, though less than historic highs.

6. Why so many people?

There are many refugee families from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are fleeing poverty, joblessness and crime. In the first eight months of the fiscal year that started in October, some 440,000 people from the Northern Triangle were apprehended at the U.S. border, twice as many as in the whole year prior, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

7. Could Mexico accommodate that many refugees?

Mexico’s economy is slowing; some say it’s even in recession. Government shelters in the south of the country are overflowing, with some media reporting lack of services for families, including young children. Nonprofit shelters at northern border cities like Tijuana are at capacity and are complaining the government stopped funding them due to austerity measures. Budget cuts led Mexico to halve spending on immigration services in the first quarter, but the government now says it has beefed up immigration personnel.

8. What’s the long-term solution?

That’s very much up for debate. Mexico wants the U.S. to expand financial aid to the Northern Triangle countries, but Trump has done the opposite. Mexico has endorsed a regional development plan for itself and the Northern Triangle put together by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. But Mexico also wants to spend billions of dollars to alleviate poverty in its own southern states and might be expected to prioritize that project when allocating government funds.

9. Where else is this playing out?

The European Union has pressured Turkey, its southernmost contiguous member, to assume a role similar to what the U.S. expects of Mexico. Since 2015, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have made their way over land to Turkey, then risked death to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece in hopes of finding asylum in Europe. The EU, trying to stem the flow, reached an agreement with Turkey in 2016 under which refugees denied asylum in Greece are returned to Turkey. The Migration Policy Institute says the number of asylum-seekers returned to Turkey “have been extremely low” — 2,441 people returned to Turkey from Greece in the three years after the agreement was signed in March 2016. But Turkey says its security forces captured more than 20,000 migrants trying to reach Greece in 2018.

–With assistance from Caroline Alexander.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nacha Cattan in Mexico City at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Carlos Manuel Rodriguez at [email protected], Laurence Arnold

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