The United Nations Refugee Agency has held initial talks with U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration about Central American asylum claimants being processed in their own countries, but it is too early to estimate how many people could benefit from the policy, agency head Filippo Grandi said on Tuesday.
The Biden administration has already said it plans to restore a program which allows certain children in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to apply for refugee status in the United States from home.
“This is a complex situation,” Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Reuters in an interview as he wrapped up a visit to Colombia. “It’s very early days to come to conclusions or make comments because the work is in progress.”
Investment in migrants’ home countries will be key to strengthening economies and security and diminishing incentives to leave, he said.
“We need to also… work very much with Mexico to strengthen its own capacity to deal with the movement (of migrants),” Grandi said.
Thousands of Central Americans have attempted to travel north in recent months following back-to-back hurricanes in November which displaced more than 500,000 people, according to data from the International Organization for Migration.
Biden’s government has suspended 2019 agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador which sought to force asylum seekers to first seek refuge in those countries if they passed through them, before applying in the United States.
Grandi’s Colombia visit was crowned by a Monday announcement that the country will allow Venezuelan migrants to seek temporary protective status for a 10-year period.
The new rules allow Venezuelans already in the country and those who arrive during the first two years of the scheme to apply for the status.
The U.N. will up its efforts to help Colombia prepare for potential increases of Venezuelan immigrants, Grandi said.
“We are certainly stepping up our operation,” Grandi said. “It’s a variety of interventions that we’re doing, but we’re also helping the government at the legal and institutional level to strengthen this preparation.”
Colombia’s migration agency estimated on Tuesday that as many as 2.5 million Venezuelans could benefit from temporary protection, including some 770,000 it projects may arrive over the next two years.
Of the more than 1.7 million Venezuelan immigrants currently in Colombia, over 50% lack legal status. Colombia has been the top destination for people fleeing economic and social collapse in neighboring Venezuela.