Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Guatemala

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Guatemala , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 21 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In 1998, Guatemala hosted 800 refugees, of whom 600 were Nicaraguan and the remainder mostly Salvadoran. UNHCR received 111 asylum applications during the year, mostly from Chinese (65), Nicaraguans (16), and Cubans (12). It granted only five applicants refugee status. Some 3,900 Guatemalan refugees repatriated from Mexico during the year.

An unknown number of persons hoping to reach the United States transited through Guatemala during the year. In May, between 14 and 22 Chinese nationals drowned off the coast of Guatemala after the boat ferrying them ashore from a large ship sank.

Refugee Return

A civil war that began in the 1960s, peaked in the early 1980s, and formally ended in December 1996 left more than 100,000 Guatemalans dead and uprooted a million people. Most of those affected were disenfranchised indigenous people who lived in Guatemala's northern highlands. Some of the uprooted fled to neighboring countries and to the United States; most remained displaced within Guatemala. A majority of the internally displaced subsequently returned home, but several hundred thousand remained displaced.

In October 1992, although the conflict was still in progress, Guatemalan refugees in Mexico signed an agreement with the government of Guatemala that paved the way for refugees to repatriate with government and UNHCR assistance. More than 32,000 refugees have repatriated since 1992, including 3,911 in 1998 (1,310 individually, with UNHCR assistance, and 2,601 through collective returns assisted by UNHCR but organized by the refugees themselves). UNHCR's assistance to returnees included promoting socio-economic reintegration through quick impact projects and income-generating activities, and helping them secure personal documentation.

The government has kept a number of the promises it made to refugees in the 1992 repatriation agreement and 1996 peace agreement. However, it has done little to fulfill one of the most important: that it would help returnees obtain land. According to UNHCR, the various government programs that helped returnees obtain land benefitted only some 22,000 of the more than 32,000 returnees.

Internal Displacement

Two years after the signing of the peace accord, the Guatemalan government still categorized some 250,000 people as internally displaced. Most became displaced from their homes in the early 1980s; many are firmly resettled and do not plan to return to their areas of origin.

The December 1996 peace agreements called on the government to help the displaced find lasting solutions. In mid-1997, representatives of the displaced people signed an accord with the government that required the government to address their most important needs, especially land. However, the government has done little more. In June 1998, more than 1,000 displaced persons held a protest in Guatemala City, calling on the government to provide them land and housing.

Although many Guatemalans who were forcibly displaced in the early 1980s remained away from their homes in 1998, USCR no longer included them in its listing of internally displaced populations. The conflict that caused the displaced to flee ended in 1996, and virtually all of the Guatemalan refugees who intend to return home have done so. Displaced Guatemalans who wish to return home are no longer prevented from doing so by conflict or fear of persecution. For most, the barrier is the government's lack of political will and/or resources to provide the displaced the land and assistance they would need to return home.

Helping people affected by the decades-long conflict resume normal and productive lives remains a major social issue for Guatemala. Even returned refugees who benefitted from UNHCR assistance were living in poverty. According to the UN, "The levels of investment needed to bring the returnees (and those in surrounding areas) out of poverty are enormous and exceed the funding available."

Other social problems continued to abound in Guatemala. Crime continued to mount unabated. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that many citizens were taking justice into their own hand, and that lynchings were taking place weekly. The agency also said that extrajudicial executions and the use of torture had also increased during 1998.

The assassination in April of one of Guatemala's best known human rights advocates, 75-year-old Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, rocked Guatemala. Two days before he was assassinated, Gerardi had presented the findings of a 1,400-page report that documented the atrocities committed in the civil war, Guatemala: Never Again. The report blamed the army for 80 percent of the killings and atrocities. Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu labeled the assassination a political crime intended to intimidate those who expose the truth about human rights in Guatemala.

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