A Child's Dilemma: Mom or Prosperity

Guatemalans in Mexico ponder going home

In a dirt-floored schoolroom perched on a hillside in southern Mexico, a group of Mexican-born children of Guatemalan refugees are discussing a hot topic in their camp: their eventual "return" to Guatemala, a country these children have never known.

Do they want to move to Guatemala? "No!" comes the resounding response from the 17 adolescents. But if their parents return, don't they want to accompany them? "No!" they repeat.

And why are they so set on staying in Mexico? Timidity causes a long silence, but finally 12-year-old Lucio Torres Moreno speaks up to approving nods around the room. "We've heard about the massacre by the Army of some of the people who already went back," he says. "We hear about the problems in Guatemala, that there aren't many schools, and we think we're better off in Mexico where we've always lived," he says. "Here we live in peace."

Guatemala's 36-year civil war is winding down. Peace talks are continuing, and the government says a peace accord may be concluded by the end of this year. So with peace in the offing, the 31,000 Guatemalan refugees still living in camps in southern Mexico are starting to consider whether to move back "home."

But for the 51 percent of those refugees that United Nations refugee officials estimate are children - children born over the 14 years the camps have existed - home is Mexico, and resistance to leaving is strong.

That resistance is causing conflict in families where parents may be dreaming of returning to the land of their ancestors, but where the children argue for staying in Mexico, which they know generally offers better living conditions and future options than Guatemala.

The generational conflict is causing many families to reconsider a long-held assumption that they would return to Guatemala once there was peace.

"We all live with this fear that our children, if we take them to Guatemala, are going to want to come back [to Mexico]," says Alfredo Hernandez Moreno, a refugee and schoolteacher in the Porvenir I camp, which is south of Comitn, in the southern state of Chiapas. His five children were born in Mexico. "No one wants to live his life without his children around him, so in many cases we are trying to stay longer."

Mexico is not forcing the refugees to return to Guatemala - largely because many of them contribute significantly to the local economy. But about 18,000 have already returned, with a new annual high of 5,500 returning last year.

The rate, however, seems to be slowing as families weigh the life they have created in Mexico against what they would return to. In the case of children born in Mexico, they have the option of choosing Mexican citizenship upon turning 18.

There is little mystery as to why children born here would want to stay. While conditions in the 113 camps in Chiapas may seem difficult, they are relatively comfortable compared to what most of the returning refugees face in Guatemala.

In Chiapas families may live in dirt-floor houses, but there is water, electricity, and schools. In the neighboring states of Campeche and Quintana Roo, conditions are even better, with children sometimes reaching university studies or finding well-paying jobs in tourism in Cancn.

In those camps, up to 80 percent of inhabitants say they want to stay.

But most returning refugees have lost the house and land they once had. And in many cases their new homes are in remote regions, with few or no services.

Another problem is language. The refugee children have grown up speaking Spanish, but in many cases they return to rural areas of Guatemala where indigenous languages predominate.

Feelings about the option of returning grew more uncertain after last October when the Guatemalan Army entered a settlement of former refugees in northern Guatemala and killed 11 recent returnees.

The Army's motives are unclear, but intimidation may have been the intent.

To help reduce anxiety over repatriation, UN refugee workers encourage discussions within families.

"The worst problems arise when a return confronts a family that hasn't discussed it," says Carmen Aubanell Serra, camp official in Comitn with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The parents are ready, the truck is packed, but the children are resisting, and suddenly there's this division," she says.

UNHCR workers also organize group discussions and require women-only meetings - since an absence of dialogue in families usually results from men who don't want to hear from reluctant wives or children.

Both the UN representatives and COMAR, Mexico's refugee-assistance agency, don't want to see anyone going to Guatemala by force.

"We want to encourage family unity," says Ms. Aubanell, "but we also have to consider the individual's rights and development."

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