In 2000, Guatemala hosted 720 refugees, of whom 512 were Nicaraguans. Guatemala received 54 asylum applications during the year; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which adjudicates asylum claims in Guatemala, granted 23 applicants refugee status.
Guatemala is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. According to a 1999 governmental decree, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is charged with refugee status determination, and migration border officials are obliged to admit asylum seekers and to refer asylum cases to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. However, although legislation implementing the Convention was pending in 2000, Guatemala did not enact legislation by the end of the year. In 2000, the Guatemalan government also debated ratification of the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on Statelessness. Absent implementing legislation, refugee status determination is the responsibility of UNHCR. Guatemala rarely detains asylum seekers.
An unknown number of persons hoping to reach the United States transited through Guatemala during the year. In January, Guatemala deported 270 undocumented Chinese. The U.S. Navy had intercepted 249 of the migrants in the Pacific Ocean and brought them to Guatemala in December 1999. The others were detained in November 1999 trying to cross Guatemala with the goal of eventually reaching the United States.
In September and October 2000, the Guatemalan government arrested and deported more than 1,000 undocumented migrants. The operation, known as "Coyote 2000," was funded by the United States. According to the director of the immigration department, the deported migrants were from El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and "even Pakistan." Central Americans were deported immediately.
Asylum seekers come to the attention of UNHCR when the Department of Migration, the Office of Human Rights, or the asylum seeker contacts UNHCR or its nongovernmental implementing partner. According to UNHCR, no requests for assistance were received on behalf of any of the intercepted Chinese or from any of those apprehended pursuant to "Coyote 2000" program.
A civil war that began in the 1960s, peaked in the early 1980s, and formally ended in December 1996 left more than 200,000 Guatemalans dead or disappeared and a million people uprooted. 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.
In October 1992, 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 43,000 Guatemalan refugees have repatriated since 1992. In 1999, the voluntary repatriation program officially ended, and the last Guatemalan refugees who wished to repatriate left Mexico, some after 17 years in refugee camps.
In early 2000, UNHCR launched a pilot project to train more than 1,500 returned refugees on co-operatives, project management, administration, finance, leadership, gender equality, and democracy. All reintegration projects closed in September 2000, when UNHCR officially declared an end to its activities to help Guatemalans returning from Mexico.
In 2000, some returnees expressed regret at having repatriated, claiming that they received poor land, and that they faced hunger, disease, random violence, and land tenure problems.
During the year, 20 government ministries and departments, churches, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and human rights organizations formed the "Refugee and Asylee Protection and Assistance Network" (REPARA). REPARA's new role as an advocate for refugee interests coincided with the official closure of the UNHCR reintegration operation for Guatemalan refugees and the downsizing (to one international consultant and two national staff) of UNHCR's presence in the country. At year's end, REPARA was in the process of seeking formal recognition by the government of Guatemala, and indicated it would press for an amnesty granting Guatemalan citizenship to long-staying refugees as well as encourage the passage of national refugee legislation.
Although many Guatemalans who became internally displaced in the early 1980s remained away from their homes in 2000, 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 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 resources to provide the displaced the land and assistance they would need to return home.