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Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - The human side of CIREFCA

Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - The human side of CIREFCA
Refugees (99, I - 1995)

1 March 1995
For the past five years, CIREFCA has spelled hope for hundreds of thousands of refugees, returnees, displaced persons and illegal aliens in Central America. (Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)

For the past five years, CIREFCA has spelled hope for hundreds of thousands of refugees, returnees, displaced persons and illegal aliens in Central America. (Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)

By Ron Redmond

Ask farmer Epifanio Lezcano what he knows about CIREFCA and you'll get nothing but a shrug and a blank stare. But ask Lezcano how he and 14 other former Nicaraguan refugees in his immediate family obtained permanent residency and a four-hectare pineapple farm in the rolling hills of northern Costa Rica and he'll talk your ear off. Although he doesn't know it, Lezcano owes it all to CIREFCA.

The same goes for Guatemalan returnee Viviano Gonzalez, who along with 1,867 families came home from Mexican exile a year ago to begin rebuilding a cooperative farm in the steamy, mosquito-infested jungles of the northern Ixcan region. Gonzalez doesn't know what CIREFCA is, and he doesn't particularly care. What matters most to him is that he and his family finally have their own land, a modest new home and the security of knowing that UNHCR and the international community care about their safety and their future.

It's the same story in the dusty village of Zacamil in neighbouring El Salvador, where hundreds of former refugees who spent more than a decade in Honduran exile are building a clinic and recently inaugurated a new four-room school during an afternoon of fireworks, patriotic speeches and games for the children. When asked what CIREFCA meant to them, the villagers uniformly replied: "What's CIREFCA?"

CIREFCA is the Spanish acronym for International Conference on Central American Refugees. But in more human terms, CIREFCA was a highly successful international effort that over the past five years spelled hope for hundreds of thousands of refugees, returnees, displaced persons and undocumented aliens in seven Latin American countries. Lezcano, Gonzalez and the villagers of Zacamil are all direct beneficiaries of the just-concluded CIREFCA process.

In the 1970s and 80s, Central America was rocked by war, civil strife and widespread human rights abuses that forced nearly 2 million people from their homes. By the mid-1980s, nearly all sides had grown weary of conflict and were beginning to search for a regional solution. In August 1987, Central American leaders signed the "Esquipulas II" accords laying down plans for a "firm and lasting peace" in the region.

Although there were a series of converging initiatives at the time, CIREFCA can be traced primarily to these Esquipulas II accords, in which the regional leaders agreed "to give urgent attention to the flows of refugees and displaced persons resulting from the crisis in the region, by offering protection and assistance, especially in the areas of health, employment, education and security, and to facilitate their repatriation, resettlement or relocation, so long as it is voluntary and individually expressed."

This recognition by regional leaders that any comprehensive solution to Central America's problems had to include initiatives for refugees, returnees and the displaced provided UNHCR and others with an unprecedented opportunity to translate the goals of Esquipulas II into concrete humanitarian action.

"Esquipulas provided the political framework for CIREFCA," said Michel Gabaudan, UNHCR's representative in Guatemala. "UNHCR utilized political developments in the region, seeing it as a chance to start talking about real long-term solutions to refugee problems, and not just assistance programmes."

In September 1988, the governments of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua met in San Salvador and - with support from UNHCR - agreed to call the first CIREFCA meeting in May 1989 in Guatemala City. At the 1989 meeting, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua adopted what eventually became a five-year (1989-94) CIREFCA "Concerted Plan of Action" to find solutions to the problems of uprooted people in the strife-torn region.

The CIREFCA Plan of Action included the following objectives:

  • To identify permanent solutions to the problems of uprootedness within the framework of national development and as an integral part of efforts toward peace and democracy;
  • To respect the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their countries to resume a normal life through the promotion of voluntary repatriation as the ideal solution;
  • Where voluntary repatriation is not yet a realistic option, to help refugees play a wider and more positive role in countries of asylum by encouraging interaction with local communities;
  • To improve the situation of displaced persons so that they may return to a normal, productive life in their places of origin;
  • And to counteract the negative impact that uprooted populations may have on employment, social services, economic conditions and the environment in receiving communities by, among other things, ensuring that programmes also benefit the local population.

More than 1.9 million people were targeted under the CIREFCA plan in 1989, including 146,400 refugees, 61,500 returnees, 893,000 undocumented Central American aliens, and 872,000 internally displaced people.

UNHCR and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) were named as the main United Nations players in implementing CIREFCA programmes and projects, underscoring the concept that there must be a continuum from relief to rehabilitation to long-term development. For the first four years of CIREFCA, the lead agency role was taken by UNHCR. As the regional situation stabilized and the focus began shifting more toward long-term development, UNDP assumed the lead in July 1993 for CIREFCA's final year.

CIREFCA projects covered a wide range of needs - from general infrastructure development and national reconstruction to meeting the specific requirements of individual communities in countries of origin as well as in countries of asylum.

Donor nations were impressed by the regional effort being made by the CIREFCA group and provided financial and other support. Between 1989 and mid-1994, some $420 million was spent on CIREFCA projects, including nearly $80 million channelled through UNHCR.

Although much remains to be done in Central America, the list of CIREFCA's achievements is impressive. By mid-1994, some 70,000 Nicaraguans, 30,000 Salvadorians and more than 18,000 Guatemalans had voluntarily returned to their countries. Thousands more who decided not to go home were being integrated in asylum countries.

"Closed" camps were eliminated and refugees were encouraged to play a productive role in their asylum countries.

Starting in Nicaragua, UNHCR pioneered small-scale Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) to support returnee communities in such areas as transportation, health, infrastructure, agricultural production and income generation. Today, QIPs have become a mainstay in UNHCR programmes around the world.

Similar local development projects were started by UNDP under the "PRODERE" programme, initially funded by the Government of Italy.

In El Salvador, a CIREFCA programme administered by UNHCR helped more than 1 million war-affected people receive new personal identification documents that eventually enabled them to vote in national elections in March 1994.

But one of the most remarkable achievements of CIREFCA was its ability to open a dialogue between opposing sides, thus contributing to the overall peace process.

"CIREFCA got people talking about things like human rights, protection and other issues that they never wanted to do in a formal setting until then," Gabaudan said. "In El Salvador, for example, this helped to establish a dialogue between national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the government - neither of whom trusted the other in those early days."

Opening this channel of communication on humanitarian issues had the added benefit of bolstering the political process in El Salvador, according to Roberto Rodriguez, deputy director of the Human Rights Division of the United Nations in El Salvador (ONUSAL). Eventually, the two processes became mutually reinforcing.

"CIREFCA helped strengthen the peace process, which was at that time a little bit shaky," Rodriguez recalled. "Everything had to be discussed and negotiated with all concerned. This exercise of talking and talking and negotiating every single humanitarian project eventually created a new culture of dialogue between the sides, instead of violence."

Rodriguez, who worked for UNHCR in the region before going to ONUSAL, recalled that prior to CIREFCA, everything had to be cleared first with the military. "Even for small projects, I had to use military connections to get anything done," he said. "They controlled everything. But under CIREFCA, we started to work with the various government ministries, so we were also helping to develop the civilian elements of power."

But UNHCR's mediating role in talks between the various sides often brought criticism that it favoured one group over the other.

"In the early days, the Salvadorian NGOs were very critical of UNHCR because they felt we should have been more openly critical of the government," Rodríguez said. "On the other hand, there are people, even today, who say we were always in favour of the left. But the important thing is that now, in 1994, the NGOs have come to realize that they had to change their style. CIREFCA was the key to this transformation - to get anything done, they had to have a dialogue with the government and the military. At the same time, the government and the military - whether they liked it or not - had to talk to the NGOs."

Project by project, the CIREFCA process gradually helped establish a climate of cooperation between former foes.

"A very important lesson of CIREFCA is that UNHCR cannot be afraid of these accusations of partiality, because they will come from all sides," Rodriguez added. "The most important thing is to create a framework where you set your sights on the end result, but always keeping in mind that you have to remain objective."

Lorena Martinez and Salvador Orellana, representatives of two Salvadorian NGOs that work with returnees, agreed that UNHCR emerged from the CIREFCA process with a reputation for fairness and impartiality. But both acknowledge that they didn't always see it that way.

"At first, we thought UNHCR was paying too much attention to the government's wishes," recalled Orellana, who said his work with displaced Salvadorians was illegal during the war years. "But then, as UNHCR actually began the return of refugees to areas still in conflict and began working with the returnees and protecting them, then it was the government that was making the accusations of unfairness."

Added Martinez: "We now understand that UNHCR is in this country at the invitation of the government and, therefore, has to work with it. In the final analysis, it's been a good relationship and a good experience for all of us."

Orellana agreed. "Now you can see that all of us - the government, NGOs, donors, UNHCR, UNDP - can sit at a table and work together for the betterment of the country instead of only pushing for our own individual positions."

Today, UNHCR is scaling down its activities in much of Central America, thanks in large part to the success of CIREFCA. And throughout the region, the cooperation spawned by CIREFCA continues to bring benefits.

Take the example of Juan Carlos Merida, a 27-year-old Guatemalan refugee in southern Mexico's Chiapas state. Merida, who has a sixth-grade education, is in charge of one of 10 refugee-operated reforestation nurseries in Chiapas's Lagos de Montebello National Park. This UNHCR-supported programme dovetails nicely with several of CIREFCA's goals, including the promotion of self-sufficiency among refugees while minimizing the impact on the surrounding local population by creating jobs and improving the environment.

Merida's nursery, which in 1994 provided nearly 650,000 seedlings for reforestation, provides work for some 250 people. Merida has become a largely self-taught forestry expert and now teaches courses on the subject to other refugees and locals alike.

Merida is one of more than 40,000 Guatemalan refugees who have sought asylum in Mexico since 1982 in the states of Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo.

As an asylum country, Mexico's objectives under CIREFCA included the promotion of voluntary repatriation to Guatemala as a priority solution, as well as self-sufficiency oriented toward integration for those refugees like Merida who do not want to repatriate.

Merida, whose family fled Guatemala when he was 14 years old, says he has built a new life in Mexico and hopes to stay there. Many Guatemalan refugees his age and younger feel the same way. But although he and others like him are well on the way to self-sufficiency, they still have no legal residency status in Mexico and worry about their future.

"I want to stay here because I see that my children will have an opportunity to get an education and I want them to have a better future than I did," said Merida, who is now married, with one child and another on the way. "After all these years in Mexico, you become a part of Mexico. We're not here to take land away from Mexicans, but if there's a little corner of this country somewhere that's available for us, it would be very nice."

Throughout much of Central America, the lack of land remains a major problem for refugees and returnees alike. Compounding the refugees' uncertainty in Chiapas is a simmering conflict between the region's impoverished Indian farmers and the Mexican government that erupted in January 1994 in bloodshed.

Despite the opportunities in Mexico and continuing fears among prospective returnees of insecurity in their homeland, more than 13,000 Guatemalans have returned home since organized repatriations began in 1993.

Although Guatemala remains the major area of concern within the original CIREFCA group of seven, some progress is being made. In the remote north-western settlement of Chacula, for example, nearly 1,000 Guatemalans have begun rebuilding their lives since the first returns to the region in November 1993. The returnees are part of a 5,000-hectare cooperative that has been built virtually from the ground up over the past year. With government and international funding, the returnees first built a reception centre and a temporary water system, latrines, showers and other basic facilities. Today, neat rows of houses line the dirt streets of the new town, which also boasts a host of QIPs ranging from the construction of a concrete-block school to a restaurant, a tailor shop and a bakery that employs 37 women.

"A lot of these people came back from Mexico with new skills that they're trying to put to use here," said Jose Samaniego, head of the UNHCR field office in the nearby town of Nenton. "In addition to agriculture, the men are doing much of the infrastructure work, while the women are involved in various income-generating projects. It's a beginning, and it gives women a role in rebuilding and enables them to earn an income while the men get the fields prepared."

Samaniego said that while most of the returnees know little or nothing about CIREFCA, they are very aware that they are part of an international initiative. In the last half of 1994, for example, several international and non-governmental organizations that were deeply involved in the CIREFCA process supported programmes at Chacula and sent representatives there to check on progress. The continuing international interest and presence has contributed to an easing of tensions between the military and the returnees.

"It has really made a difference in the security situation here," said Samaniego. "The mere presence of internationals here gives these people peace of mind."

In the remote region of Ixcan, nearly 1,900 Guatemalan families have returned home to a cooperative farm founded in the 1960s by an American Maryknoll priest. Most of the families had fled fighting in 1982, and only about one-third of the original population has so far returned from Mexico. Security remains a concern among the Ixcán returnees, even with the international presence of UNHCR and other agencies.

On 26 October 1994, for example, residents said a returnee who had gone to bathe in a river near the Ixcan settlement of Veracruz disappeared. His bruised and bound body was found the next day, an iron bar driven through his stomach, they said. Other returnees allege they have been harassed by the military, and say they have been falsely accused of supporting leftist guerrillas.

"We don't want to deal with the guerrillas and we don't want to go to the military, either," said one returnee. "We just want to get on with our lives. We depend on the international community, international pressure and UNHCR for protection. There is a dialogue beginning between the government and the guerrillas, but we still want the international community to stick around until it is safe for us."

Unfortunately, many of the returnees arrived back home to find their land occupied by others, a problem that remains unsolved for some 400 families in Ixcan, and many others throughout the country.

Despite these concerns, the returnees say they are in a much better position than before their forced flight from Guatemala in the 1980s. And they attribute their improved situation in large part to CIREFCA-supported education programmes provided to Guatemalan refugees during their time in Mexico.

"Before we went to Mexico, we had no rights. There was no respect for the people; we were ignored," said Veracruz returnee Viviano Gonzalez. "Then in Mexico, we learned there was a constitution and that everyone has rights under it. That's why we now have permanent commissions that stand up for our rights."

That same confidence is evident among the 31,000 Salvadorians who have returned to their homeland over the past decade with help from UNHCR and CIREFCA. In all, more than 700,000 Salvadorians were displaced by 12 years of bloody civil war that cost tens of thousands of lives and devastated the nation. Most of the displaced remained within the borders of El Salvador, and the rest fled to neighbouring countries.

The reintegration of the returnees is especially impressive in Segundo Montes, where some 8,400 former refugees and 2,000 displaced people have built a thriving community on 21 square kilometres of formerly unoccupied mountain land. The returnees, most of whom spent their years in exile in Honduras, are highly organized and extremely proud of several internationally supported income-generating projects, including a pig farm, dairy, radio station, bakery, metal shop and shoe, clothing and furniture factories.

"When we started, 99 percent of these people were peasants without any other skills besides farming," said community leader Walter Antonio Alvarez, who is in charge of the income-generating projects at Segundo Montes.

"We don't have enough land for everyone here, so we're trying to teach them new skills through on-the-job training, but it hasn't been easy." Pointing to a stack of crude wooden coffins gathering dust in a dark corner of the furniture factory, Alvarez added with a smile: "When we first started, a lot of the things we made were very ugly, like these caskets here. They were so ugly, people refused to be buried in them."

But the small industries and agricultural projects at Segundo Montes are thriving today, so much so that absentee landlords have now turned up after 15 years to demand what the returnees say are exorbitant prices for their land.

Alvarez and former guerrilla Juan Antonio Reyes, a foreman in the furniture factory, agreed that CIREFCA has helped El Salvador and its people. But they also stress that many of the basic causes of the long conflict in their country remain unresolved - including the land problem.

"The armed struggle had its time, and it had its effect," said Reyes, who lost a brother in the war and who was himself wounded seven times. "Now it has to stop. But the struggle of the people continues. We have gone from fighting in the trenches to fighting for development."

"The reason we fought the war was the unjust distribution of land," added Rosa Elia Argueta, president of the Segundo Montes Community Association. "If we don't get our own land, what was the war for? The government has to come to terms with it, because we are not going to move again."

In Belize and Costa Rica, government policies aimed at local integration are bringing benefits to refugees and local people alike. A November 1992 government decree in Costa Rica gave all refugees an opportunity to obtain permanent residency. Some 10,000 of them - out of 25,000 remaining refugees and 80,000 other uprooted people - have taken advantage of the offer.

"We had to stretch our blanket and add water to the soup to help these people," said Costa Rican President, José María Figueres Olsen.

"But my personal opinion is that Costa Rica has benefitted very much in the past from the different immigrants we have received from all corners of the continent. Costa Rica has always been famous for its open-door policy. Many of our brothers and sisters from all over Latin America have come to live with us for one reason or another. And by coming here, they have in fact made our country richer ... "

Among the refugees who have accepted Costa Rica's hospitality - and who are making a real contribution to their new country - is 29-year-old Yeril Arauz of the San José suburb of San Miguel. Arauz, who has built a successful welding shop from a small loan provided by UNHCR in 1986, fled Nicaragua to Costa Rica in 1984.

"UNHCR gave me a welding machine in 1984 and I started my business by going door-to-door, pulling the welder on a wagon," Arauz said. "Then I got a bicycle to pull the wagon. Then, as my business grew, UNHCR provided a small loan so I could build this house."

The 15-year housing loans, made in cooperation with the government National Mortgage Bank, average about $3,500 per home. The $2.5 million programme, which is partly funded with money from the European Community and individual governments, also provides loans to refugees and low-income Costa Ricans who want to start small enterprises - all part of a strategy of long-term integration and support for the local economy.

Today, Arauz is married with two children and has built a comfortable home and adjacent welding shop employing six people. He has discarded his old bicycle for a pickup truck and is seeking another loan to expand his business.

"This is proof that what you do for refugees really helps us to help ourselves," Arauz said as he gestured toward his busy shop and home.

President Figueres, who has watched the CIREFCA process from the beginning, says he is "very bullish" about the future of Central America.

"We have come over the hurdle, and peace and democracy are here in the region to stay," he said during a recent interview. "But it still needs to go through a process of consolidation, which means many things. It means the strengthening of democratic institutions. It means a lot of social investment in programmes to improve the quality of life. And it means trade opportunities and access to important markets so we can build production and stimulate overall economic growth."

President Figueres says CIREFCA can provide some valuable lessons for future regional solutions to the problems of refugees and the displaced. But he also cautions that each case is different and may require different approaches.

"I think there are a lot of positive experiences in the way the problem was dealt with in our Central American region," he said. "But one must be careful when trying to extrapolate from this experience and trying to adapt it to other regions of the world.... To begin with, in Central America, we have shared values for generations. We have a shared language and we have a shared religion. And to a certain extent, we have shared political values. So there is a lot in common.... Now if those conditions exist in other parts of the world, the experience is transferable."

Dessalegn Chefeke, director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for the Americas and Caribbean, agreed that all of the elements which contributed to CIREFCA's success may not be present in other regions. "We think CIREFCA should be viewed not so much as a model, but as a prototype," Chefeke said, noting that the entire process is being carefully evaluated by the United Nations to determine what aspects can be applied to other programmes elsewhere in the world.

"We know that the real success of CIREFCA is due to the commitment of Central American leaders, who finally said enough is enough and decided to work together for peace and development," he said. "So first and foremost, there was this political will." Other crucial elements for success were the support given by donor countries and the cooperative efforts of U.N. agencies like UNDP and UNHCR, as well as NGOs and government bodies.

And what is the most important lesson of CIREFCA?

"Two words: peace and development," Chefeke said. "It sounds obvious, but CIREFCA is living proof that you can't have one without the other. There is no way you can have peace if there is no development, and there's no way you can have development if there's no peace. They have to be viewed as two sides of the same coin."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)