Is it safe for Guatemalan refugees to return home?
Last October, when a Miami TV crew landed here in a helicopter next to a school, most of the students ran out to greet them. But the Mayan Indian children from Guatemala hid in fear.Skip to next paragraph
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They associated helicopters with the military attacks on Indians that have occurred in their country, according to Neil Boothby, a psychologist who interviewed a number of the children.
The children and their parents who fled from Guatemala to this town -- named after Seminole Indians -- are Kanjobals, a Mayan group.
Now this shy and generally quiet people, and other undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States, find themselves in a tug of war between the US government and human rights groups.
The federal government wants to force the Kanjobals back to Guatemala, contending it is safe now because violence has been reduced. Deportations are under way.
Last year in Guatemala there were 525 violent deaths of civilian noncombatants in the country's simmering civil war. This is compared with an estimated 3,573 in 1982, according to the State Department's most recent human rights report. The report also notes ``an increase in the number of kidnappings and disappearances in 1984,'' some of them involving Indians.
The report also states: ``There is considerable evidence that harsh treatment and/or torture is inflicted upon detained persons in Guatemala.''
Human rights groups say the situation is even worse. They contend vigorously that it is still unsafe for Guatemalans to go home.
Among other things, ``suspicion would befall them just because of coming back,'' says Aryeh Neier, vice-chairman of Americas Watch, a human rights group with offices in New York and Washington. Mr. Neier recently made two trips to Guatemala.
This tug of war over the Guatemalans in the US comes as three human rights groups charge in a just-released critique that State Department reports on human rights abuses in Central America are biased in favor of nations the US supports.
The 1984 State Department reports on human rights ``minimize'' abuses in Guatemala and El Salvador and are ``grossly exaggerating abuses'' in Nicaragua, according to a joint critique by Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights.
In addition, Arthur C. Helton, of the Lawyers Committee, charges that the use of federal immigration law has become ``overpoliticized.'' The State Department should not be allowed to give advice on political asylum cases to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), he says.
Florida is a focus in these disputes. Of the 5,000 to 7,000 Kanjobals who have come to the US, some 500 to 800 settled in Florida, many of them in this town, where most of them are farm workers.
Their lawyers in Florida are gathering extensive documentation for an all-out legal fight this summer to win political asylum for those who want to stay.
Under federal immigration law, persons can be granted political asylum if they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
In Monitor interviews here and in other south Florida towns with Kanjobals, some said they want to stay and others said they hope to return -- when it is safe.
``We haven't applied [for political asylum] because we are thinking of returning,'' said Edgar, in the livingroom of a comfortable house he rents here with several other Kanjobals. They are farm workers. (Last names are omitted because the Guatemalans interviewed still have family members in that country.)
Edgar explained the dilemma he and other Guatemalan Indians faced at home, living in territory fought over by guerrillas and the military.
``If we weren't in favor of the government, they [the government] would say we were with the guerrillas. If we weren't in favor of the guerrillas, they [the guerrillas] would say we were with the government.''
``If I didn't go with this side, they would kill me. If I didn't go with the other side, they would kill me,'' he said in explaining why he fled.
As many as 100,000 people have been killed and 38,000 have disappeared in Guatemala during the past 30 years of civil unrest, according to the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The group consists of more than 100 members of both houses of Parliament.
The years 1980-82 saw the highest levels of killings, by all accounts. And Indians were frequently the victims as guerrillas, which included Indians, clashed with the military in the Indian highlands.
James Cason, Guatemala desk officer for the State Department, says it is safe for the Indians to go home now because ``the violence levels there are way, way down.'' He refers to the State Department reports on human rights as proof.