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Matching humanitarian norms with cold, hard interests: the making of refugee policies in Mexico and Honduras, 1980–80

  • Kevin Hartigan

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Serious consideration of the role of humanitarian norms and institutions in policymaking does not require the abandonment of an interest-based, rational actor model of policy analysis. However, it does require that scholars focus their attention on international institutional arrangements which are normally overlooked by realists but which may determine the ways in which policymakers match their interests with policy options. The analysis presented here assumes that policies are based on policymakers' calculations of national interests, but it posits that these calculations are affected by incentives and policy options emanating from international norm-promoting institutions. The study attempts to explain how the intervention of an institution of this type led policymakers in two cases to reassess and reinterpret their interests on issues of humanitarian norm compliance.

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1. See, for example, Keohane, Robert O., “International Institutions: Two Approaches,” International Studies Quarterly 32 (12 1988), pp. 379–96; Krasner, Stephen, “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective,” Comparative Political Studies 21 (04 1988), pp. 6694; and Ruggie, John G., “International Structure and International Transformation: Space, Time, and Method,” in Czempiel, Ernst-Otto and Rosenau, James N., eds., Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989), pp. 2135.

2. In particular, see Krasner, , “Sovereignty,” p. 72.

3. See Meyer, John W., “The World Polity and the Authority of the Nation State,” in Bergesen, Albert, ed., Studies of the Modem World System (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 109–37; Meyer, John W., Boli, John, and Thomas, George M., “Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Culture Account,” in Thomas, George M. et al. , eds., Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society and the Individual (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1987), pp. 1237; and Boli, John, “Human Rights or State Expansion? Cross-National Definitions of Constitutional Rights, 1870–1970,” in , Thomas et al. , Institutional Structure, pp. 133–49. According to the sociological argument, Third World states derive their policies and their institutional structure from a preexisting system that they played little or no role in shaping.

4. For detailed discussions concerning the ways in which the UNHCR approaches new host states, see Holborn, Louise, Refugees, a Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975); Gordenker, Leon, Refugees in International Politics (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 4243 and 98–112; and Smyser, R.W., Refugees: Extended Exile (New York: Praeger, 1987).

5. See Loescher, Gil and Scanlan, John, Calculated Kindness (New York: Free Press, 1986); Zucker, Norman L. and Zucker, Naomi F., The Guarded Gate: The Reality of American Refugee Policy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987); and Teitelbaum, Michael S., “Immigration, Refugees and Foreign Policy,” International Organization 38 (Summer 1984), pp. 429–50.

6. For instance, refugee protection may be used by a state to damage an enemy's international image or even to contribute to an enemy's overthrow. In other cases, refugees may bring useful skills or capital to the host state.

7. See Avery, Christopher, “Refugee Status Decision-Making in Ten Countries,” Stanford Journal of International Law 19 (Summer 1983), pp. 235356; and Goodwin-Gil, Guy S., The Refugee in International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). There have been shifts toward more exclusionary refugee policies in Europe since these studies were carried out, but the basic procedural differences between the policies of the United States and those of the European democracies remain.

8. See Aiboni, Sam Amaize, Protection of Refugees in Africa (Uppsala: Swedish Institute for International Law, 1978); and Osborne, Milton et al. , Refugees: Four Political Case Studies (Canberra: Australian National University, 1981).

9. See Pitterman, Shelly, “Determinants of Policy in a Functional International Agency: A Comparative Study of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Assistance in Africa, 1963–1981,” Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, Evanston, III., 1984.

10. Three commmon measures of refugee protection policies—legal guarantees, the numbers of protected refugees, and the quality of refugee treatment—will not be used, since they reveal little about the impact of norms or of the UNHCR. Legal measures are problematic because states may either violate the spirit of their own refugee laws (in favor of contradictory immigration laws) or provide asylum in the absence of national refugee legislation. Measures of the numbers of protected refugees and the quality of refugee life say nothing about the criteria for determining refugee status and thus fail to control for self-interested refugee protection.

11. Before 1981, many Central American refugees had entered Mexico en route to the United States, and some had remained in Mexico. The Mexican government had never been forced to formulate an explicit policy toward these people, since they either continued to the United States or blended into the marginalized populations in Mexico's major cities. The Guatemalans in 1981 were the first refugees to enter en masse with neither the resources nor the desire to continue north.

12. Early in 1981, Guatemala announced to Mexico that it would not cooperate in the contadora process unless the Mexicans either returned the refugees to Guatemala or settled them away from the border. See Cultural Survival Quarterly 8 (Winter 1984), p. 81.

13. Interview with Luis Ortiz Monasterio, director of the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR), July 1989.

14. In May 1983, after repeated demands that the refugees return, President Rios Montt of Guatemala gave an ultimatum to the refugees, whom he characterized as “guerrillas.” He declared one month of amnesty for returning refugees and said that Guatemala would “come in after them” if the refugees failed to leave Mexico during that period. See Excelsior (Tegucigalpa), 17 05 1983. Even before this ultimatum was issued, the Guatemalans had made incursions into Mexico to bringback refugees. First denounced by Mexican officials in May 1982, these incursions continued until 1984, when Guatemalan soldiers killed six refugees in an attack on a camp in El Chupadero, Chiapas. This attack prompted the relocation of refugees from the border, as well as strong protests from the Mexican embassy in Guatemala. See Valencia, Eliecer, Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, 1980–1984 (New York: Americas Watch Committee, 1984), p. 80; and Uno más uno (Mexico City), 4 05 1984.

15. Interview with Esteben Garraiz, deputy director of COMAR, July 1989. See also Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, pp. 42–43.

16. Interview with Garraiz, July 1989. In later years, the situation in Chiapas made some forms of refugee assistance, such as land for resettlement, unthinkable for Mexican officials, who were afraid of producing resentment and greater demands on the part of the impoverished indigenous population.

17. Fagen, Patricia W. and Aguayo, Sergio, Fleeing the Maelstrom: Central American Refugees, occasional paper no. 10, Central American and Caribbean Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., 1986, p. 50.

18. Both the peasants and the ranchers in Honduras strongly opposed giving any land to the Salvadoran refugees. See Loescher, Gil, “Humanitarianism and Politics in Central America,” in Loescher, Gil and Nichols, Bruce, eds., The Moral Nation: Humanitarianism and U.S. Foreign Policy Today (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), p. 171; El Tiempo (Tegucigalpa), 8 10 1983; and La Prensa (Tegucigalpa), 19 10 1983.

19. Mesa, Victor, Protección y asistencia internacional de refugiados en America Central: El caso de Honduras (Protection and international assistance to refugees in Central America: The case of Honduras) (San Jose, Costa Rica: Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, 1988), p. 15.

20. See the statements by Salvadoran and Honduran military spokespeople in Ferris's, Elizabeth G.The Central American Refugees (New York: Praeger, 1987), p. 103.

21. Fagen, Patricia W. and Aguayo, Sergio, Central Americans in Mexico and the United States: Unilateral, Bilateral and Regional Perspectives, Hemispheric Migration Project, Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 16.

22. See Friedland, Joan and Rodriguez, Jesús Rodriguez y, Seeking Safe Ground: The Legal Situation of Central American Refugees in Mexico (San Diego: Mexico-U.S. Law Institute, 1987), p. 26.

23. See Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 79; and Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, p. 15.

24. Interview with a UNHCR protection officer in Chiapas, July 1989.

25. An estimated six hundred people were killed in the massacre, which took place on 14 May 1980. The incident was first denounced by officials of the Catholic Church and was finally reported in the Honduran press two months later. See Camarda, Renato, Translado forzado: Refugiados Salvadoreños en Honduras (Forced displacement: Salvadoran refugees in Honduras) (Tegucigalpa: Centro de Documentatión de Honduras, 1987); and El Tiempo, 9 July 1980.

26. Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, p. 63.

27. El Tiempo, 5 January 1981.

28. See Refugees (Geneva), 05 1986. The UNHCR program in Honduras came to include tens of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees, both Misquito Indians and Latinos, and approximately five thousand Guatemalans.

29. The U.S. government may have been partly to blame for Honduran hostility toward the Salvadoran refugees. U.S. officials, including Jean Kirkpatrick, accused both refugees and private voluntary organizations of aiding the FMLN. See Camarda, , Translado forzado, pp. 17–20; Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, Honduras: A Crisis on the Border-A Report on Salvadoran Refugees in Honduras (New York: United Nations, 1985), pp. 8 and 99.

30. See Uno más uno, 14 June 1983, which reports data from interviews with Mexican immigration officials.

31. Honduran officials, including refugee assistance officials, repeatedly accused the refugees and the nongovernmental organizations that worked with them of supporting the guerrillas. On this point, see La Prensa, 13 June 1984; and Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, p. 63. In August 1989, during my interview with Colonel Abraham Turcios, the director of the Honduran refugee agency CONARE, Turcios claimed that the FMLN used refugee camps in Honduras as bases for recruitment, training, and medical treatment.

32. Turcios of CONARE, for example, stated the following during his discussion with me in August 1989: “When the UNHCR arrived, we didn't understand what the status of refugee was. We were ignorant of the international laws in this area and of the famous convention of 1951, the protocol and all of that…If the UNHCR had not taken part, we would have certainly had to take measures to get rid of all of these people.”

33. Interviews with Garraiz, the deputy director of COMAR, and with Turcios, the director of CONARE, July and August 1989.

34. See Refugees, January 1982, p. 1; Refugees, March 1982, p. 3; and “UNHCR Information Document on the Situation of the Refugee Program in Honduras, March 1987,” document no. HCR/HON/3/87, United Nations, New York.

35. Both in Mexico and in Honduras, the church was the first to assist the refugees and the first to bring their plight to public attention. In Mexico, the Archbishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruitz, championed the refugees' cause. In Honduras, church officials were the first to investigate and publicize the Sumpul River massacre in 1980. See Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, pp. 49–50; and El Tiempo, 9 July 1980.

36. High Commissioner Paul Hartling visited Honduras in June 1980. Guy Prim, a UNHCR representative, visited Mexico in August 1981. See El Tiempo, 10 June 1980; and Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 79.

37. Interview with Luis Ortiz Monasterio, director of COMAR, July 1989.

38. La Prensa, 13 June 1984.

39. Interview with Ortiz Monasterio, July 1989.

40. Interview with Turcios, August 1989.

41. In an interview in July 1989, Ortiz Monasterio told me that “a lot of organizations showed up that we had never heard of and we said we wanted nothing to do with them except through the UNHCR.”

42. In an interview in August 1989, Turcios stated that Honduras periodically expelled international volunteers whom it suspected of guerrilla sympathies. On these occasions, the government would simply inform the UNHCR that the offending individual or organization had to be replaced.

43. Interview with Ortiz Monasterio, July 1989.

44. On one occasion, a UNHCR protection officer went as far as to publicly praise the Honduran armed forces for their humanitarian treatment of Salvadoran refugees. See La Tribuna (Tegucigalpa), 2 02 1982.

45. See Refugees, August 1987, p. 42.

46. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Mexico and Honduras and with Turcios, July and August 1989.

47. On 21 January 1981, the Honduran government committed itself to the following principles: (1) Honduras must accept those seeking refuge. (2) There can be no forced repatriation of refugees. (3) Salvadorans cannot work in Honduras. (4) Refugees must remain in designated areas. At this time, CONARE was established as an official government body in charge of refugee protection. See Mesa, , Protectión yasistencia international de refugiados en America Central, p. 9; and Camarda, , Transtado forzado, p. 16. Mexican government officials made a similar pledge at the UN in mid-1982, although they maintained that the Guatemalans did not meet their legal asylum criteria. A year later, the Mexican government reaffirmed that the refugees would not be deported and decided to issue them identification documents. See Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, p. 15; and Excelsior, 29 June 1983.

48. Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 63.

49. La Prensa, 21 September 1984.

50. Ferris, , The Central American Refugees, p. 104.

51. Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, pp. 83–84.

52. In 1985, a centrist president was also elected in Guatemala, and Mexican officials began to parrot the Honduran claim that democratization had eliminated the refugees' need for asylum.

53. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Mexico City and Quintana Roo, July 1989. 54. Interviews with Garraiz and with UNHCR protection officers in Mexico City, July 1989. Most of the procedures to promote voluntary repatriation were used by both host countries. The exception was bus tours, which ran only for Guatemalans in Mexico. These tours, in which UNHCR officers accompanied refugee representatives on two-week fact-finding trips to their former villages, represented an innovation in the UNHCR's promotion of voluntary repatriation.

55. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Mexico and Honduras, July and August 1989. The UNHCR officials in Mexico told of intercepting a group of refugees being repatriated by COMAR. While it was apparent to the protection officers that the refugees were repatriating voluntarily, they returned the refugees to a camp for interviews and signed statements, only to prevent a relaxation of procedures. In Honduras, refugee leaders fought for years for the right to make repatriation decisions as a community, rather than on an individual basis, stressing reasons of community safety. The UNHCR repeatedly refused to accept this option and even threatened to withdraw from one Honduran camp until refugee leaders agreed to respect individual repatriation.

56. Friedland, and Rodríguez, Rodríguez y, Seeking Safe Ground, p. 27.

57. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Honduras, August 1989. See also Loescher, and Nichols, , The Moral Nation, p. 169.

58. Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, p. 70.

59. See Uno más uno, 14 June 1983.

60. In an interview printed in Refugees, July 1986, p. 20, Honduran President José Azcona made the following statement: “We believe that there have been cases where our goodwill has been abused by the refugees…There is a constant need for more expenditures and there are always serious problems arising from the presence of such large numbers of refugees in our country.”

61. See Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, p. 54.

62. See El Tiempo, 7 July 1983.

63. Interview with a UNHCR protection officer in Mexico City, July 1989.

64. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Honduras, August 1989. The Honduran immigration officials had only the perfunctory role of issuing refugee documents to those recognized by the UNHCR. The agency's control of the process was formalized in a memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and Honduras in July 1987, but it had been in practice since 1980.

65. For a description of the work of these officers, see Refugees, March 1985, pp. 17–18. See also Ferris, , The Central American Refugee, p. 101.

66. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Honduras, August 1989.

67. See Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, Honduras: A Crisis on the Border, p. 44.

68. This practice is used by the UNHCR to operate in states that are not parties to the UN convention and do not officially recognize refugees.

69. Interview with Anna Celia Salgado of SERTEC, an organization that is located in Mexico City and monitors the treatment of refugees, July 1989.

70. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Quintana Roo and Chiapas, July 1989.

71. Interview with a UNHCR protection officer in Mexico City, July 1989.

72. Interviews with COMAR and UNHCR officials, July 1989.

73. In 1989, only about 20 percent of the Salvadoran refugees in Honduras and about 20 percent of the Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico were protected. During an interview in August 1989, Colonel Turcios of CONARE speculated that as many as 10 percent of the people living in Honduras in 1989 were Salvadoran but that only about 24,000 of these Salvadorans were in refugee camps. In Mexico, about 100,000 unprotected refugees occupied areas near the Guatemalan border in the early 1980s, as reported in Cultural Survival Quarterly 7 (Fall 1983), p. 38. There were also hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees living in other parts of Mexico during the 1980s, but only a fraction of them gained recognition from the UNHCR office in Mexico City. See O'Dogherty, Laura, “Centroamericanos en la Ciudad de Mexico: Desarraigados y en el silencio” (Central Americans in Mexico City: Uprooted and in silence), unpublished manuscript, Mexico City, 1989.

74. See Excelsior, 23 December 1984. See also Salvado, Luis Raul, The Other Refugees: A Study of Unrecognized Refugees in Chiapas, Mexico, Hemispheric Migration Project, Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1988.

75. Fagen, and Aguayo, , Fleeing the Maelstrom, p. 51.

76. Honduran troops murdered refugees within camps in 1984, 1985, and 1987 and abducted Salvadoran refugees in camps on several occasions. In each case, the Honduran military admitted to and defended the acts. See Loescher, , “Humanitarianism and Politics in Central America,” pp. 169–71; Camarda, , Translado forzado, p. 22; Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, Honduras: A Crisis on the Border, p. 25; and interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Honduras, August 1989.

77. See Loescher, , “Humanitarianism and Politics in Central America,” pp. 169–71; and Camarda, Translado forzado, p. 22.

78. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in the Colomoncagua and Mesa Grande refugee camps, August 1989. See also Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, Honduras: A Crisis on the Border, p. 48.

79. Interviews with a UNHCR protection officer in Honduras and with Turcios, the director of CONARE, August 1989.

80. Interviews with UNHCR protection officers in Mexico, July 1989. The UNHCR's attempts to influence Mexican immigration practices through public protests revealed Mexico's intolerance of direct international intervention. For example, while UNHCR criticism of COMAR chief Mario Vallejas led to his removal, it was followed by Mexico's demand that the head of the UNHCR mission in the country, Pierre Jambor, be replaced. After Jambor's removal, the agency replaced most of its non-Latin staff in Mexico with Southern Europeans and Latin Americans in an attempt to mitigate Mexican sensitivity to UNHCR “imperialism.”

81. Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, pp. 12–19.

82. Interviews with Ortiz Monasterio, the director of COMAR, and with Laura O'Dogherty, in Mexico City, July 1989. See also Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, pp. 12–19.

83. Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, pp. 50–51.

84. In an interview in July 1989, Ortiz Monasterio of COMAR described the struggle of those in favor of refugee protection as one to “educate our colleagues in immigration and in the military about Mexico's international obligations to protect human rights.” Regarding the attitude of the immigration service, see Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, p. 15.

85. Friedland, and Rodríguez, Rodríguez y, Seeking Safe Ground, p. 26.

86. Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, pp. 51–52.

87. When Miguel de la Madrid was inaugurated, the UNHCR presented his administration with a critical report on COMAR, which resulted in a shake-up of the organization. See Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 54. In interviews in July 1989, UNHCR protection officers told me that the UNHCR used the same tactic to purge COMAR of corruption after Carlos Salinas was inaugurated.

88. Uno más uno, 22 June 1983.

89. Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 54.

90. Vallejas was replaced by another official of the Foreign Ministry, Oscar González. In 1987, Ortiz Monasterio was reappointed to head the commission.

91. This struggle over the definition of the refugee issue is exemplified by contradictory government press releases from 10 May 1984. On that day, the Minister of Governance released a report declaring refugees a national security problem, and COMAR produced a communiqué saying that the refugees were of humanitarian concern and represented no threat to Mexico. See Proceso (Mexico City), 06 1984.

92. Many Mexican diplomats, including the ambassador to Guatemala, aligned with the UNHCR despite the importance of their relationship with Guatemala. Some of them presented evidence of Guatemalan attacks on refugees in Mexico to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1983. See Fagen, and Aguayo, , Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, p. 18; and Valencia, , Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico, p. 54.

Research for this article was partially funded by the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford University. The success of the fieldwork was due in large part to the tremendous help and inexhaustible patience of Dominique Morel and to the personal support of Terry Karl and Patricia Weiss Fagen. I am also grateful to Stephen Krasner, John Meyer, and the reviewers of 10 for their insights and advice, which contributed greatly to the final draft of the article.

Matching humanitarian norms with cold, hard interests: the making of refugee policies in Mexico and Honduras, 1980–80

  • Kevin Hartigan

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