Another Facet of the War: Refugees and Displaced Persons in Central America
“Upheaval” is one of the terms most frequently used by reporters and journalists to describe the present situation in Central America. Almost 2 million Central Americans, the majority from the poorest social classes, have been forced from their homes (the displaced) or even their countries (the refugees) because of this upheaval.
Where have they gone? How do they live? What is the significance of these waves of human beings surging across the borders of Central America that have seriously altered the demographic maps of certain countries?
This document contains some basic information on the situation in the region, in which we have included Mexico and Panama because these countries have received Central American refuges. We have provided the most recent systematic statistics at our disposal: those of June 1983. Most of the additional data and observations come from information furnished by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and from a report by church organizations that visited the region in mid 1983. (It should be remembered that figures on the refugee issue and the reality they portray change constantly, even over short periods of time.
This report is limited to a factual summary of the situation. We know that every number has a name and a face and that behind every statement there is along and complex story. Although the tears, frustrations, and traumas of so many uprooted lives cannot be properly depicted in this short article, we do not want to neglect to mention the human dimension of this reality.
El SalvadorFor many years, overpopulation (El Salvador has the highest population density of any country on the American continent) along with deeply-ingrained social injustice and inequality have caused Salvadorans to migrate to other countries of the region. “The do-alls, sell-alls, eat-alls,” the “eternally illegal” Salvadorans to whom Roque Dalton pays homage in his “Love Poem” even traveled as far as Saudi Arabia in order to serve as cheap and hungry manpower. Another poet said that the Salvadorans have been “chronic foreigners.”
Two out of every three refugees in Central America are Salvadorans. Beyond this general approximation, it is difficult to establish accurate estimates as to the present number of Salvadoran refugees in the region given that the country's poor workers have had a particularly long tradition of emigration. A study undertaken in 1971, two years after the “Soccer War” and many years before the outbreak of the current conflict, estimated that there were 30,000 Salvadorans in Guatemala, 12,000 in Nicaragua and 300,000 in Honduras. According to the latest UNHCR figures, there are 242,000 Salvadoran refugees in the region, almost half of them in Mexico. A great number of legal and illegal emigrant refugees (or refugee emigrants) are also to be found in the United States. Refugee support groups estimate that 300,000 Salvadorans are presently in the US). A indirect indication of the proportions of this emigration is present in a figure published by The Washington Post: between October 1, 1980, and September 30, 1981, the US returned 10,473 Salvadorans to their country after refusing to accept them as political refugees or immigrants. In the last three years more than 22,000 Salvadorans have applied for asylum in the US However, there have been decisions on only 1,100 cases, and of those only 74 have been accepted.
El Salvador is the only Central American country without refugees from other countries. The problem within the country is one of displaced persons. While more than 40,000 civilians have been killed since 1979 (30,000, according to the Kissinger Report), those displaced by the war—the internal refugees—are estimated at over 500,000. Approximately 20% of El Salvador's population has been displaced within its borders or forced to flee the country as refugees.
The great majority of these displaced persons are poor peasants, overwhelmingly women, children and elderly people. The war has battered and impoverished the country, making these people’s situation critical with respect to food, housing and health care.
The displaced can be classified in two categories, according to the kind of aid they receive. The first group is composed of peasants who have been evacuated from critical war zones by the government’s armed forces. Included in this group are the relatives of members of the armed forces or paramilitary groups such as the so-called “civil defense” (previously know as ORDEN). This group also comprises peasants relocated in “strategic hamlets,” in the department of San Vicente, for example. This category of displaced people is dealt with by the National Commission of Aid for the Displaced Population (CONADES), founded by the Salvadoran government in September 1981 and directed by representatives of six ministries. In December 1982, CONADES estimated that 253,954 displaced persons were living in 265 different settlements.
Besides the displaced accounted for in official figures, there are those who are not counted or cared for by the government and are even repressed by the government in different ways. A great many of them are given attention by churches through ARCECO, a commission made up of representatives from the Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran churches, as well as from the Conference of Religious and the Jesuit University (UCA).
In a sermon in the San Salvador Cathedral on August 14, 1983, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas described the situation of displaced persons—they are referred to as refugees in El Salvador—in the following manner.
“What was the origin of the refugee problem here in our country? It began around 1979, when many people were forced to leave their villages because of death threats from paramilitary groups who are free to act as they please. Many of them left their land, homes and families, and many of them tell of atrocities: how members of their families—children, fathers, and mothers, etc.—were killed.
“It is only natural that, with the deterioration of the situation and the outbreak of the insurrection, the number of refugee camps has increased. Many of these people flee because they have been pointed out as collaborators of the guerrillas and their lives are in danger; a simple accusation is enough to make them fear the worst. Others were forced to leave their villages because of military land and air operations, with indiscriminate bombings. The victims are not guerrillas but rather defenseless civilians, among whom are many women, children and elderly people. It is also natural that, due to their humble origins, many of the people who have taken asylum in the refugee camps supported by the archdiocese are not in favor of the present regime or in agreement with the current situation because they have been the first victims. It is only to be expected that many of them have lost their papers and are thus reluctant to leave the camps for fear of being pointed out or falling victim to the existing repression…”
Displaced Salvadorans can be divided into four categories, according to their living arrangements:
1. Those whose freedom of movement is restricted and who live in camps. (Monsignor Rivera y Damas refers especially to them.)
2. Those who have built their own little huts in settlements where, depending on the location, they may have greater freedom to move about.
3. Those who have found a place to stay, if only on a temporary basis, with relatives or friends who are often just as poor as they.
4. Those who have no secure or fixed place of residence and are constantly on the move; they either travel with the guerrilla forces or flee from the governmental troops.
Just weeks before his assassination in March 1980, Monsignor Romero officially opened the doors of the first shelter, located in the San Salvador seminary. Of those living in refugee camps, 85% have no legal identification documents. One of the most extreme cases is that of the San Roque refugees, who are living in the basement of an abandoned San Salvador church. Children born there three years ago have never seen the light of day.
There are certain settlements where the living situation is just as critical as in the refugee camps. One such example is the Cacaopera settlement, where 2,000 people live in a sort of no man's land between a zone controlled by the FMLN and another where the armed forces conduct their operations.
Of the four categories mentioned above, the last two are the most difficult to pin down with accurate figures.
HondurasTraditionally, Honduras was a land where Nicaraguan peasants from the south and Salvadoran peasants from the southwest came to do seasonal labor, farm small plots of land, settle down for a longer period of time, or even remain permanently, keeping ties with their relatives on the other side of the border. These people could easily travel back and forth from one country to the other.
This is no longer possible. The 20,000 Salvadoran refugees presently in Honduras had to escape from military operations carried out by their country's armed forces. They risked their lives crossing the rivers along the border and the risk would be even greater if they attempted to return to their country. The 3,500 Nicaraguans estimated to be living in the south central portion of Honduras are mostly family members of Somoza's former National Guard or peasants from the border areas who have been captured by the ex-Guardsmen and forced to join counterrevolutionary bands. The Miskitu case is completely atypical in the Central American region because their historical and natural habitat covers territory belonging to both countries on opposite banks of the Coco River, which has only been the border between Nicaragua and Honduras since 1960. The Miskitus do not relate to the national borders separating the two countries or to a sense of Nicaraguan or Honduran citizenship. It is estimated that 14,000 Miskitus who fled from Nicaragua are now in Honduras. There are also 1,000 Guatemalan refugees in Honduras.
The Salvadoran refugees are in a very delicate situation. Some 16,000 people are concentrated in the two largest Salvadoran refugee camps, Mesa Grande and Colomoncagua. After visiting the refugees in Honduras in mid-1983, Monsignor Rivera y Damas described the camps as “places of suffering, although officials say that they are ‘vacation spots’ where the guerrillas go to rest.”
The first Salvadoran refugees began to cross the Lempa River into Honduras in late 1979. The Honduran government, which has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, allowed these peasants to remain on Honduran soil, while refusing to accept any responsibility for them. Swarms of refugees soon began to arrive, and a need was seen to respond to the problem. UNHCR started to work with the refugees in September 1980, and in January 1981 the Honduran government created the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) in order to control all activities pertaining to the refugees. At this point, the Honduran government began to see the refugee issue as a national security problem and not one of humanitarian aid. UNHCR has very close ties with the Honduran government, and assists a greater number of refugees in Honduras than in any other country in the Central American region.*
*The Evangelical Commission for Development and National Emergencies (CEDEN) was the UN-appointed agency that administered the refugee camps until May 1982, coordinating the work of Cáritas, the Mennonite Church, Medicines Sans Frontiers and world Vision. The latter, a fundamentalist evangelical agency from the US, became quite controversial and was asked to leave. CEDEN was accused of fraud and dismantled, but the other three agencies that it coordinated continue to play a positive and decisive role in helping the refugees. In December 1982, UNHCR began to channel its aid through specific programs.
Governmental policy is reflected in the Salvadoran camps by strict control over the refugees. Colomoncagua is a militarized zone, where the Honduran armed forces constantly supervise the assistance agencies’ personnel (doctors, social workers, etc.), who are only allowed to remain in the camps for a maximum of eight consecutive hours. There are also many things the refugees are not permitted to do: they cannot leave the camp to bathe, cut wood or go farther than 50 yards from its perimeter, etc. The Honduran government justifies these controls with the allegation that they prevent food, clothing, medicine and other provisions from ending up in the hands of the guerrillas.
UNHCR's 1983 budget for aid to these refugees was $17,000,000. The 1984 budget is down to $12,000,000, and plans have been made to relocate both the Mesa Grande and Colomoncagua refugees farther into the interior of Honduras. This relocation, which is to begin in early May, was planned by the Honduran and US government with geopolitical criteria in mind. In the face of the upcoming US-Honduran maneuvers known as Granadero I, the thousands of refugees and the international observers from the agencies who aid them represent a significant hindrance. Moreover, the camps will be occupied for military purposes during and after the maneuvers. These relocation plans are a source of deep concern to those involved in helping the Central American refugees. The Salvadoran are ready to offer resistance to the move, and some observers foresee a serious conflict that could result in a massacre.
The feeling of insecurity that Salvadorans in Honduras experience goes back to the massacre on the Sumpul River (also on the border) on May 14, 1980, when Honduran and Salvadoran troops encircled and killed 600 peasants fleeing from a military operation in El Salvador. The denunciation of that massacre by Bishop Carranza and the priests from the Honduran diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán caused an outcry around the world. The insecurity has remained as a result of continued incursions into the camps by Salvadoran or Honduran soldiers. (On February 16, 14 refugees between the ages of 14 and 20 were killed by Honduran soldiers. The facts related to the murders were published in the Honduran press.) UNHCR has made a kind of “gentleman's agreement” with the Honduran military, but the security of the refugees is not guaranteed.
Children represent approximately 50% of the population in the Salvadoran refugee camps. The major problems in the camps are malnutrition, inadequate water supplies and poor connections with the outside world. The Honduran branch of Cáritas coordinates educational and handicraft activities in which 90% of the adults take an active part. Monsignor Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, temporary successor of the late Bishop Carranza, has played an important role in defending and assisting the Salvadoran refugees. However, he will soon be replaced.
The majority of the Nicaraguan Miskitus in Honduras are presently located near the border in several camps on the Mokorón, Patuca and Warunta rivers. It is very difficult for visitors or journalist to gain access to these camps. Groups of Miskitus leave the camps to receive military training with the counterrevolutionaries of Steadman Fagoth's Misura, which attacks Nicaragua from bases within Honduras. Sources consulted by the peace and Justice Service for Latin America estimate that 30% of the Miskitus in Honduras would like to return to Nicaragua, not so much because the aid they receive in the camps is insufficient, but rather because of the excessive control and surveillance or because they are disenchanted with the “political” explanations that convinced them to leave Nicaragua. According to one UNHCR official, the attitude of the Miskitus should be questioned: “They won't lift a finger to help themselves… Food aid made this camp. Now it's destroying the Miskitus. They are probably the most privileged refugees in the world.”
Misura provides other figures regarding Nicaraguans in Honduras: 2,500 former members of Somoza' s National Guard, 17,500 Miskitus and 7,000 non-indigenous Nicaraguans.
Poul Hartling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says his organization considers “voluntary repatriation as the best solution” for the refugees. As of February 21, 1984, 208 Nicaraguans in Honduras had availed themselves of the amnesty decree enacted by the Managua government on December 4, 1983. The decree is intended to allow refugees or those who, through coercion or confusion, have taken up arms against the government to return voluntarily to the country. However, it has been difficult for the Nicaraguan government to implant this repatriation policy in Honduras. The most alarming evidence of obstruction to this policy in Honduras came when the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, asked the Honduran government to investigate the alleged massacre of some 200 Miskitus who, according to the charges, were killed on January 6 while attempting to leave Mokorón and return to Nicaragua. Pérez Esquivel said he had received very reliable information to this effect.
BelizeInformation concerning the exact number of refugees in Belize is a delicate political issue. The government affirms that there are from 2,500 to 3,000 refugees, all of them Salvadorans. It also maintains that all those who arrived after June 1981 are illegal immigrants. UNHCR agrees that all the refugees in Belize are Salvadorans, but puts their total at 7,000, 2,000 of whom receive aid from the organization. Church sources speak of 13,000 to 15,000 refugees, including Guatemalans in their numbers. Some of the confusion may be due to the lack of a precise definition of refugee status, but the government’s failure to acknowledge the figures provided by UNHCR is an indication that much more serious problems exist. If we were to accept the 13,000 to 15,000 estimate, Belize (with only 145,000 inhabitants) would be the country with the highest proportion of refugees in the region: approximately 10% of its total population.
Agriculture is not very developed in Belize, and the country has extensive unused land. Population density is 6.3 inhabitants per square kilometer, as compared with 67 in Honduras and 229 in El Salvador. Therefore, it would seem only logical for Belize to open its doors to immigrants, regardless of their nationality, in order to develop its rural areas, but racial, cultural and even historical factors cannot be ignored. Belize is the only Central American country with a majority of blacks, a British historical and cultural influence and a harmonious and peaceful political history. This delicate balance could be endangered by a massive influx of indigenous or mestizo Spanish-speaking refugees coming from countries with a very conflictive political past. In order to maintain the country's ethnic balance, the government is presently planning to transfer 3,000 Haitian refugees (of those who fled to the US) into Belize through a project promoted by Haiti and financed by the US government.
A professor at the University of Belmopan described the situation as follows: “If we don’t take corrective measures, the capital of Belize will soon become another Miami in the sense that a different ethnic group arrives and quickly assumes an advantageous position. The history of blacks on this continent, when they are reduced to minority status, is very, very sad. Blacks here fear a pattern of violent change: they are afraid of being exterminated.”
Despite government reserves, its Refugee Advisory Board, founded in 1980 when the first Salvadoran refugees arrived, cooperates with UNHCR and is implementing a very generous aid program that combines the work of the government with that of the churches and private sector.
GuatemalaDespite the fact that Guatemala has more refugees and internally displaced people than any other Central American country, it is the one about which refugee information is the most incomplete. UNHCR does not work in Guatemala, but it estimates that there are between 50,000 and 100,000 Salvadoran refugees in the country. No one provides them with aid, and it is very hard to locate them. Some people think they live clandestinely as they work their way north in an attempt to reach Mexico and the US. Their living conditions seem extremely precarious, although it is difficult to obtain precise information on this subject.
Nevertheless, there is an even more serious problem in Guatemala—that of the displaced. According to information from the bishop of Guatemala published in The New York Times, the government's counterinsurgency war against the guerrilla forces has already displaced one million people, the majority of whom are indigenous. (This figure represents one-eighth of the country's total population). One priest said: “We cannot speak of refugee camps in this country because the entire republic is one big refugee camp”.
Some of these displaced people stay in the homes of relatives or friends in the cities, surviving on charity—medicine and food—that they receive from certain parishes. Thousands of indigenous people wander through the rural areas, especially the northern high plateau, in a continual exodus. In order to survive, they must avoid being detected by the government's armed forces. Because of logistical support they have given or might give to the guerillas, they are all considered to be subversives.
Under General Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan government began to set up a resettlement plan for the displaced indigenous population. They were placed in “model villages” or “strategic hamlets” like those created during the Vietnam war. The principle of these hamlets is to ensure strict control over the population enclosed in them. The new government of General Mejía Víctores continued the plan, and in September of 1983 opened its first camp of this kind: the Colonel Antonio José Irisarri military base, situated in Alta Verapaz. There 871 campesinos from 13 different hamlets and indigenous groups were huddled together.
All the resettlement camps have are numerous families with one or more members who have been killed by the armed forces in their counterinsurgency campaign. An example of this situation is to be found in the Rabinal Rural Home (Baja Verapaz), run by the Family Integration Center: of the 7,500 indigenous people living in this resettlement, 679 are widows and 1,612 are fatherless children.
MexicoMexico is four times larger and has three times more inhabitants than all the Central American countries together. Over half of the region's refugee population is presently in Mexico: between 120,000 and 150,000 Salvadorans and 35,000 (according to UNHCR) and 100,000 (church sources) Guatemalans.
It has been a Mexican tradition to grant asylum to Latin American politicians, labor leaders and revolutionaries who have fled from repressive regimes. However, Mexico has been no more prepared than other countries in the region to receive the sudden and massive arrival of Central American peasants and workers who, without any means of subsistence, have been knocking at its doors over the last four years. Moreover, Mexico was not prepared to deal with the political implications involved with the arrival of refugees from neighboring countries.
The status of refugees in Mexico is very uncertain and confused. Mexico has not signed the Geneva Convention or the 1967 Protocol concerning refugees. Until recently, the Mexican government had enacted no internal legislation regarding refugees.
According to UNHCR, two or three out of every ten Salvadoran refugees are “economic migrants” who pass through Mexico on their way to the US. Other sources contend that of the more than 100,000 Salvadorans in Mexico only about 30% are working and 5% are studying.
The Guatemalan refugees represent a serious problem, especially in the southern state of Chiapas. For decades, Guatemalan peasants have crossed the border with Mexico to look for work in the lowlands of Chiapas. Even before large numbers of refugees began to arrive, 50,000 Guatemalans a year made their way into Mexico during the harvest season. The difference is that they are no longer looking only for work; their primary concern is now that of saving their lives. Chiapas has approximately the same land area as the entire nation of Guatemala and contains a sizable proportion of Mexico's oil deposits. The presence of refugees in this area is drawing southern Mexico into the “upheaval” of Central America and could create a serious political problem in that the contact between Guatemalan and Mexican indigenous people may tend to create greater awareness in the latter about the exploitation under which they live.
For all the above reasons, the Mexican government is trying to come to grips with issues including security, sovereignty, political rigidity and red tape. As a result, its policy with respect to refugees suffers from a series of contradictions. The Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) was created in May 1981 and its representatives signed an agreement with UNHCR, which had opened offices in Mexico City in January 1981. According to the UNHCR director in Mexico, the Mexican authorities respond to specific situations that arise but have no clear policy concerning the refugee question. The Department of Migration holds considerable power over the refugees and was responsible for hundreds of Guatemalans in 1981, thereby causing strong international protests. The Mexican government has a policy of prohibiting foreign volunteer agencies from working inside Mexico to assist the refugees. Financial cooperation is accepted, but COMAR insists on controlling it.
According to the Mexican Constitution, the churches have no legal status. Thus the Mexican government does no official work in cooperation with them. However, under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruíz, the Catholic Church has been the main driving force in providing aid to the Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas. The Church informs the government about the situation of the refugees, stands up for their right to asylum, and offers them all the help it can through different pastoral organizations. Such assistance is only modest, but it is efficiently administrated.
In June 1983, the Guatemalan government launched a campaign aimed at convincing the refugees to return to their country. The US government has put pressure on Mexico to stop the refugees from crossing the border and thus create a more difficult situation for the guerrillas by eliminating what the US considers a source of supplies and sanctuary. The Guatemalan government also considers the refugee camps in Mexico as bases of support for the guerrillas, despite the fact that “the majority of those who live there are women and children, many of whom are sick, illiterate, terrorized and politically inactive,” according to a description of the camps published in The New York Times on June 15, 1983.
The new government under General Mejía Víctores has had to take the refugees into consideration because they are creating a blemish on the international image this government would like to project. It thus has no alternative but to try to make the refugees return to Guatemala. There are charges of collusion between local Mexican authorities and members of the Guatemalan armed forces along the border.
Helicopters from both countries patrol the border together, and refugees allege that members of the Guatemalan armed forces have, on occasion, entered the resettlement camps to pressure the refugees to return to Guatemala. The Guatemalan armed forces have also attacked and bombed camps, as was reported in a Mexican newspaper in October 1983. Guatemala's Foreign Minister, Fernando Andrade, stated before the 38th UN General Assembly that his government will spare no effort “to bring home on a voluntary basis the refugees who are presently in Mexico because one of the most important of all human rights is that of being able to live in the land where one was born.” However, human rights groups have proven that even minimal guarantees for the safety of the refugees, once back in Guatemala, do no exist.
Costa RicaLike Mexico, Costa Rica has a long and proven tradition of giving asylum to Latin American refugees, many of whom have been members of political or intellectual elites. Approximately 6,000 Nicaraguans were granted asylum in Costa Rica during Nicaragua's war of liberation.
Salvadorans began to pour into Costa Rica in early 1980. In June 1983, an estimated 10,000 Salvadorans were in Costa Rica, 8,000 of whom were receiving assistance from UNHCR. Toward the end of 1981, the situation of these refugees began to deteriorate as a result of the government's policy with respect to the Salvadoran and Central American crisis. The economic crisis also affects the refugees, who are forbidden to work in the public or private sectors and can therefore only participate in officially approved projects. There are serious bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining legal documents, and it is estimated that half of the Salvadorans in Costa Rica do not possess such documents. Mass media propaganda insinuates that Salvadorans are a destabilizing threat to peace in Costa Rica and a cover for terrorist movements. Although Costa Rica has signed both the Geneva Convention and the Protocol, the government's policy toward refugees is presently quite contradictory, for while it refuses to accept more Salvadorans, it welcomes Nicaraguan refugees.
UNHCR has declared that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica. Governmental sources have mentioned the figure of 3,000 and say they expect that number to rise to 10,000. It is difficult to make an accurate estimate because the camps are temporary and there is a great deal of mobility back and forth across the border. According to Costa Rican sources, the flow of refugees increased in October and November of 1983, months that were particularly critical for Nicaragua from a military standpoint. This was due in part to the war situation in southern Nicaragua, where Edén Pastora's counterrevolutionary group (ARDE) is operating, and to the fact that registration for military service under Nicaragua's newly decreed law began in October. The Nicaraguan interpretation is that some of the peasants were captured by armed groups and taken across the border. Such has been the misfortune of many peasants in northern Nicaragua, where the counterrevolutionary FDN carries out its attacks.
As of February 21, 1984, only Nicaraguans in Costa Rica had taken advantage of the amnesty decree and other guarantees offered by the Nicaraguan government to those wishing to return to their country. The majority of the Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica are peasants who are living in very isolated and impoverished areas near the border. A good number of these refugees are Miskitus.
There are also 500 Guatemalan refugees in Costa Rica. A governmental agency for aid to refugees (CONAPARE) was established in 1982. It is made up of representatives from seven ministries and various institutions. The Costa Rican Catholic Church has done little for the refugees in comparison with that of other countries in the area.
PanamaThe refugee problem affects Panama less than any other country in the Central American region. Of the 1,000 Salvadorans in Panama, the majority are craftsmen and students, not peasants like in the neighboring countries. All of them receive aid from UNHCR.
In the 1970s, an ecumenical commission was formed to assist Chilean refugees. UNHCR made use of this commission as an official agency through which to channel its aid. The situation changed when Salvadoran refugees began to arrive in late 1980. The government initially refused to grant them residence and work permits. In July 1981, it signed the Geneva Convention and established a commission to draw up a refugee policy. This commission assumed control of UNHCR's aid programs in March 1982. UNHCR later transferred its projects to Cáritas, which promotes urban projects intended to help the refugees become self-sufficient.
Nicaragua“The freedom accorded the refugees to reside, travel, and work in Nicaragua is without parallel in any other asylum country of the region. As a result the majority of the refugees have settled easily into Nicaraguan life.” This statement is taken from the September 1982 edition of Refugees Magazine, published by the Public Information Section of the office of UNHCR.
There are presently 22,000 Salvadoran refugees and 150 Guatemalans in Nicaragua, only 3,200 of whom receive aid from UNHCR, the majority of them Salvadorans. This is the lowest figure among those countries in the area where UNHCR is active, and is a good indication of the high level of help provided for the refugees by the Nicaraguan government. Whereas 17,000 Nicaraguans, including the Miskitus, have left Nicaragua as refugees, a greater number of Central Americans have come to Nicaragua to seek refuge.
The Salvadoran refugees began to arrive in March 1980 and that same month the Managua government signed the Geneva Convention and the Protocol. (The only countries in the region that have signed the two documents are Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.) Refugees have the same rights as Nicaraguan citizens with respect to residence and work. In general, an attempt in made to integrate them into the country's reconstruction programs: the agrarian reform, cooperatives, adult education, the health system, etc. In September 1982, the government set up the National office for Refugees as a branch of the Ministry of Social Welfare. The purpose of this office is to coordinate integration and aid programs, as well as to administrate donations and UNHCR funds.
Refugee Magazine gives the following explanations of why the Nicaraguan government has such a generous policy toward refugees: “Despite their crushing economic problems Nicaraguans welcome the refugees with open arms. They know what it means to be uprooted. During the war that came to an end in July 1979, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans fled to Honduras and Costa Rica, and another 800,000 were displaced inside the country. When this war ended, they were able to return to their homes”.* Another explanation offered by UNHCR is economics: “Nicaragua is under-populated country. Vast tracts of potentially fertile virgin land are available, as well as farms vacated as part of the recently introduced land reform.” A third reason should be added. It is provided by the government's National office for Refugees: This policy of welcome “is the institutional expression of the revolutionary government's solidarity and support for its Salvadoran brothers and sisters.”
*The May 1983 edition of The Annals, a magazine published by the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 Somocistas and middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans left the country, seemingly never to return, following the 1979 Sandinista victory. To date, the largest, most difficult and most urgent displacements of Nicaragua's civilian population have been those of the port city, Corinto (26,000 people), and Potosí (1,053 people), which were attacked by counterrevolutionary forces in October 1983 and January 1984, respectively.
Whereas the war against Somoza displaced hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans within their country, the present defensive war against the counterrevolutionaries has also caused many Nicaraguans, especially in the border areas, to move from their homes. In December 1983, the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security and Welfare (INSSBI) declared that 100,000 Nicaraguans had been displaced.
Attacks by FDN and MISURA in the north and by ARDE in the South have forced the evacuation of thousands of peasants in Nueva Segovia, Madriz, Matagalpa, Chinandega, Zelaya and Río San Juan. However, the conditions under which these people have had to move are fundamentally different from those that forced people out of their homes during the war against Somoza. Giving the displaced in all regions of the country the attention they need is a priority for the government when it comes to distributing land through the agrarian reform, building new homes, improving health care, etc. Because of the country' s economic crisis—largely thanks to the war against the counterrevolution—the government and different religious and humanitarian organizations within Nicaragua decided to create the National Emergency Committee in order to solicit international aid for basic needs, clothing and building materials for the displaced families.
The group most affected by the displacements has been the Miskitus. In early 1982, the government was forced to evacuate 8,300 Miskitus from the banks of the Río Coco and move them to settlement sites in Tasba Pri. Later displacements of smaller groups of Miskitus have turned out to be much less controversial than the original forced exodus.
The majority of displaced Nicaraguans are peasants. Unlike their counterparts in El Salvador and Guatemala, most displaced Nicaraguan families have remained together, including the men. An indirect advantage of these forced displacements has been the bringing together in villages or settlements of groups that had been scattered over large, isolated areas. This has led to better educational services and health care, as well to increased participation in the cooperative movement fostered by the agrarian reform.
The Kissinger Commission’s Version The situation of refugees and displaced persons in Central America cannot be removed from the context of each country's prevailing social and political climate or from the overall framework of regional tension, which the Reagan administration policies have greatly exacerbated.
In its study of the situation in Central America, the Kissinger Commission had to consider the plight of the refugees and displaced persons; the problem was too massive to be left aside. The commission's report refers to the issue in three different sections. However, the contrast between the dramatic and complex reality of the refugee situation on the one hand, and the superficial description of it provided in the report on the other, could even be termed offensive.
Historically, there has always been a marked dissimilarity between the reality of Central America and the opinions about it expressed by those to the north who are largely responsible for this reality. The following quotes have been taken from the Kissinger Commission's report.
“Guerrilla forces regularly attempt to intimidate and coerce local populations with shootings, abductions and other strong-arm tactics. And the human costs of the war have been immense. Displaced Salvadorans driven from their homes and leading a precarious existence within the country number in the hundreds of thousands. Many thousands more have left El Salvador as refugees.” (page 27 ) “The tragedy of the more than one million displaced persons in Central America—driven from their homes by violence and fear of violence—is well known. Those who have found refuge in Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica are being adequately cared for under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, hundreds of thousands remain in El Salvador and Guatemala living under the most miserable conditions. These nations, whose economics have been seriously disrupted, cannot by themselves provide adequate care or relief for these people. The refugee camps and overcrowded cities to which they have fled become breeding grounds for discontent and frustration.” (page 82 ) “ As Nicaragua is already doing, additional Marxist-Leninist regimes in Central America could be expected to expand their armed forces, bring in large numbers of Cuban and other Soviet bloc advisers, develop sophisticated agencies of internal repression and external subversion and sharpen polarizations, both within individual countries and regionally. This would almost surely produce refugees, perhaps millions of them, many of whom would seek entry into the United States. Even setting aside the broader strategic considerations, the United States cannot isolate itself from the regional turmoil. The crisis is on our doorstep.” (page 93 )
Solidarity with the refugeesIt is true that the Central American refugees are knocking at the door of the US. The April 25, 1983, edition of Time Magazine estimated that 250,000 Central Americans, mostly Salvadorans and Guatemalans, were at that time residing illegally in the US. (Groups working within the United States place the estimates substantially higher.)
Nonetheless, it is extremely difficult for these refugees to find open doors in the US. Between January 1980 and April 1983, the US deported 24,700 Salvadorans to their country, thereby exposing them to the risk of death or other repression.
In the face of this situation, new alternatives for offering the refugees security are now arising. One of the most unusual is Sanctuary, a growing organization founded by a group of Quakers in 1981. Presently coordinated in Chicago, this organization has developed into an ecumenical solidarity network whose participants included 43 Christian churches as of April 1983. The churches or other buildings belonging to these denominations have been transformed into “sanctuaries” that provide refuge and protection for those who have been rejected by the law. This solidarity is reminiscent of ancient church laws that for centuries authorized the use of temples and chapels as places of refuge for those persecuted by civilian authority.
Outside the US, there are now dozens of religious or humanitarian nongovernmental organizations that, with total independence from UNHCR, consider the Central American refugees their primary responsibility. These organizations play a very significant role in the defense of the refugees' rights.
In early 1984, there was a meeting in Switzerland of the International Council of Volunteer Agencies (ICVA), which is composed of 70 such entities, some of which in turn are made up of as many as 50 or 100 individual organizations. The objectives of the meeting were to coordinate efforts and gain a clearer social and political understanding of the complex refugee problem.
It is difficult to foresee the future of the Central American refugees, those victims of the area's “upheaval” and of the misdirected policies of the US government. Until Central America becomes an area of peace and justice, there seems to be little hope in sight for them. However, the thousands of hands that are reaching out to help the two million refugees have already begun the difficult task of establishing a basis for that urgently needed peace and justice.