In 1999, Guatemala hosted 732 refugees, of whom 533 were Nicaraguan. Guatemala received 26 asylum applications during the year; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which adjudicates asylum claims in Guatemala, granted three applicants refugee status.

Guatemala is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, with one reservation: that the Convention does not apply if it contradicts the Guatemalan Constitution. The reservation has not has a negative impact on refugee protection, however. Guatemala has not enacted legislation to implement the Convention, although in 1999 draft legislation was completed and was under review.

According to Migration Decree number 529-99, which took effect in June, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is charged with refugee status determination. The June decree also stated that migration border officials have the right and the obligation to admit asylum seekers and to refer asylum cases to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. However, absent implementing legislation, refugee status determination continued to be the responsibility of UNHCR.

Migration Control

An unknown number of persons hoping to reach the United States transited through Guatemala during the year.

In December, at the request of the United States, Guatemala agreed to house 240 undocumented Chinese immigrants that the U.S. Navy intercepted in international waters in the Pacific. The United States agreed to pay for costs associated with the immigrants' stay in Guatemala and their return to China.

The Guatemalan government, concerned about an increase of migrant trafficking and smuggling and drug trafficking through the country, passed several restrictive immigration laws in 1998 and 1999. These laws included criminal penalties for aiding, transporting, hiding, and hiring undocumented migrants.

Guatemala also passed a law restricting the entry of migrants from neighboring El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Guatemala agreed to repeal this law in August after intense lobbying by neighboring governments.

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, although most remained displaced within Guatemala. A majority of the internally displaced subsequently returned home, but several hundred thousand remained displaced (See Internal Displacement below.)

In October 1992, although the conflict continued, 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. On July 29, 1999, the voluntary repatriation program officially ended, and the last Guatemalan refugees left Mexico, some after 17 years in refugee camps. The occasion was marked by a ceremony attended by Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata. As part of the ceremony, 900 Guatemalans became naturalized Mexican citizens (see Mexico.)

More than 43,000 Guatemalan refugees have repatriated since 1992. UNHCR's assistance to returnees included promoting socio-economic reintegration through quick impact projects and income-generating activities, and helping them secure personal documentation. As of June 1999, 42,000 returnees had been documented. Approximately 23,000 Guatemalan refugees elected to remain in Mexico, where they are eligible for citizenship. Of these, about half were born in Mexico to refugee parents.

While most returnees have successfully reintegrated into Guatemalan society, some have faced danger upon their return. Some villages have resisted returnees, because those who stayed behind during the war remained armed and determined to hold on to the properties they acquired from their neighbors who fled to Mexico. In addition, ethnic, religious, and political differences have divided returnees and those who remained. In Victoria, the first return community, these divisions led to the creation of two separate school systems and town offices.

Internal Displacement

Although many Guatemalans who were forcibly displaced in the early 1980s remained away from their homes in 1999, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (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 intended 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 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. Other social problems continued to abound in Guatemala. Crime continued to mount unabated. Human Rights Watch reported that many citizens were taking justice into their own hands, and that public lynchings occurred with increasing frequency in 1999.


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