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UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: Central America


UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: Central America

1 December 1998

More than two million people were uprooted by the civil wars which raged in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua during the 1980s. At the peak of the crises, in 1985, UNHCR assisted some 125,000 refugees in the region. Since the late 1980s, during which the Esquipulas II accords were signed and the CIREFCA process was launched, some 70,000 Nicaraguans, 32,000 Salvadorans and 40,500 Guatemalans have returned home under UNHCR auspices in accordance with the first objective of the CIREFCA Plan of Action. Small numbers of persons continue to request UNHCR assistance; but most of those living outside their countries of origin have chosen to remain in their countries of asylum.

The Current Situation

The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in Guatemala on 29 December 1996 completed the peace process initiated almost ten years earlier, when the Esquipulas II accords were signed. Electoral and other democratization processes are being consolidated and government structures adjusted. Central American countries are working together to address common problems and concerns, particularly in relation to their economies and trade, but also regarding migration. While some countries are experiencing steady economic growth, economic deprivation and social unrest are on the rise in others. Despite the positive trend of developments in the countries concerned, there is room for improving the existing national protection mechanisms. In all the countries under consideration, UNHCR focuses its efforts on reinforcing the foundation for international protection at the national level through capacity-building activities, often in collaboration with regional and national human-rights bodies. In July 1998, UNHCR signed a cooperation agreement with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights to carry out joint activities in the fields of refugee law and human rights dissemination, research and training of government officials and NGO staff. In Mexico, training for migration officials is conducted under a partnership agreement with the National Institute for Migration, the National Commission for Human Rights and UNHCR's government counterpart, the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR).

Those in need of protection and assistance

UNHCR assists some 31,500 refugees in the region: nearly 25,500 in Mexico, 4,000 in Belize, 900 in Guatemala, 800 in Costa Rica, 295 in Nicaragua, 170 in El Salvador and a few individuals in Honduras. More than ninety-five per cent of the refugees assisted by UNHCR in the seven countries of the region are refugees in the process of integrating in their respective host countries. The remaining five per cent come from a variety of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and, in small numbers, from countries outside the region.

How they live

Most of the refugees had been living in rural areas in their countries of origin, engaged in agricultural activities, before they fled. After more than a decade in exile, many have had access to education and have acquired new skills. They generally live in urban or semi-urban areas in the country of asylum. In Mexico, the non-Guatemalan refugees primarily live in areas just outside Mexico City, sharing dwellings with other families, with standards of living comparable to the lowest income groups in Mexico. In other countries in the region, the refugees also tend to live in or around the capital cities or other towns. In Belize, they are widely dispersed in 60 of the 200 rural villages in the country, with larger concentrations in the districts of Belize, Cayo and Stann Creek. Approximately 49 per cent of the refugees in these countries are women; less than one per cent are children under the age of five. Asylum-seekers from countries outside the continent often lack personal documentation and have difficulty integrating locally, given language barriers and a lack of cultural affinities. They are usually young, single males or small families. Women and children in this group, often in subordinate roles in their own country, are particularly vulnerable as they find themselves in a totally alien environment with no support from their relatives. There are a number of other vulnerable cases in the refugee population as well, including some elderly refugees who live alone, handicapped refugees, single-parent refugees, children with special needs, victims of domestic and sexual violence and persons with mental health problems.


UNHCR assists those refugees who want to stay in the host country in becoming permanent residents or citizens and in integrating, socially and economically, in that country. UNHCR also promotes accession to the basic international refugee law instruments, enactment of national refugee legislation and establishment of the institutions and procedures needed to ensure fair refugee status determination and protection of refugees.

Protection and Solutions

Most of the refugees in the region need a legal status and work permits. Male and female asylum-seekers need access to fair refugee status determination procedures. UNHCR advises Governments either to adopt or update legislation and establish the relevant procedures, including, when necessary, ad hoc procedures, pending the enactment of new legislation. The agency encourages governments to ensure that women entering the eligibility procedures are interviewed as individuals, not as dependents of the male heads-of-households, and that documentation provided to refugee women gives them the same entitlements as men, such as access to employment. For those who do not wish to repatriate, UNHCR, in collaboration with its partners, helps refugees gain access to the formal labour market through better-targeted education assistance as well as access to a micro-credit fund. In 1999, priority will be given to vocational and technical training as well as to expanding of the micro-credit fund, taking into account the prevailing economic and market conditions in the country concerned. In Mexico, courses for urban refugees include computer science, tailoring, childcare, secretarial skills, electronics and accounting; while the Guatemalan refugees in the southern Mexican states receive training in small-business management, agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry.


Given the much-reduced level of its operations in Belize and the Central American countries, UNHCR negotiates or consolidates agreements with existing national welfare institutions to ensure access to a range of social services. For example, an agreement concluded in Belize with the Department of Human Development includes Family Services and Community Development. A similar agreement was reached in Costa Rica with the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social and the National Rehabilitation Institute for basic medical care.

Some 90 refugees, aged between 17 and 29, benefit from UNHCR's assistance in completing their studies in recognized universities or other institutions of higher education under the Albert Einstein Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) Trust Fund. More than half of the beneficiaries live in Mexico. The second largest group of beneficiaries (18) lives in Guatemala; 15 live in Costa Rica. Since only a small number of females applied for admission to the programme, only 30 per cent of beneficiaries in Mexico and Guatemala are female.


UNHCR collaborates with relevant regional and national bodies, promotes and participates in regional fora. Of particular importance is the long-standing collaboration with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH), based in San José, Costa Rica and the international exchange which is taking place with Governments on refugee and migration matters within the framework of the regional conference on migration, also known as "the Puebla Process". In July 1998, UNHCR and the IIDH signed an agreement to promote, disseminate, train, conduct research and provide technical assistance in the fields of refugee and human rights.


The work conducted by UNHCR and its implementing partners has helped refugees in the area secure legal integration and concomitant socio-economic rights in their host countries, making the solutions to their problems as refugees truly durable. At the country level, the efforts of UNHCR, when successful, guarantee that sustainable legal frameworks and mechanisms to process asylum-seekers are in place, even in the event of a UNHCR withdrawal.

Budget US$

The budget does not include costs at Headquarters.

CountryGeneral ProgrammesSpecial ProgrammesTotal
Costa Rica482,400482,400
Other Countries1,089,000150,0001,239,000