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Assisting Central American Refugees

By Arthur C. HeltonArthur C. Helton, director of the Political Asylum Project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York, is an observer at the Conference on Central American Refugees in Guatemala City. / May 31, 1989

THIS week representatives of the governments of the Central American nations, the United States, and other countries, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme, are meeting at the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) in Guatemala City. Their purpose is to prepare a plan to deal with refugees and displaced persons in the region. The plan for development and reintegration assistance is to be an adjunct to the Central American peace process. For those of us in the relief community, there is urgency to the discussions, because there are new risks to humanitarian protection in the region.

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Central America has experienced a massive displacement of over 2 million people who, because of war, have been forced to abandon their homes and countries. It is critical to the formulation of comprehensive, responsive solutions to this displacement to provide a broad legal mandate to protect refugees. Yet some governments in the region now resist an expansive notion of protection.

In 1984, a colloquium was held in Cartagena, Colombia, to discuss the human displacement caused by war. The governments at the meeting sought to initiate a humanitarian process and to formulate a legal mandate to meet the specific needs of the region. The resulting Cartagena Declaration expands the universal definition of refugee to include ``... persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed the public order.''

This wider definition acknowledges that such threats to life or freedom are sufficient to warrant refugee protection for those who have fled their homelands. In contrast, the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention limits protection to ``persecution'' linked directly to ``race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.''

Any retrenchment of the Cartagena Declaration's concept of protection can only jeopardize the humanitarian objectives of the conference. More protection of refugees, not less, is needed to implement the peace process. The expanded refugee concept provides a clear basis for humanitarian intervention and rescue by the international community.

The governments in the region should not deny the special protection needs of Central Americans or unduly compromise the conference's plan of action as developed by the preparatory committee to implement the peace process. The plan must unequivocally affirm the Cartagena Declaration and specifically link it to economic and social development of the region as a means to attain stabilization and peace.

Both peace and development are vital in establishing solutions to adverse economic and social conditions in Central America. As a result, the international community has been called upon to increase technical, economic, and financial assistance to Central American countries. The plan of action proposes a scheme of assistance that is closely linked to the development efforts arising from the Special Plan of Economic Cooperation for Central America, adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 1988. Specifically, the preparatory committee proposed the establishment of a formal link between aid to refugees and development projects on a country-by-country basis.