Refugees generate tension in Honduras. Growing numbers strain resources - and hospitality
Honduras's longstanding hospitality to Central American refugees could be threatened. The danger stems from a spate of recent clashes between Hondurans and Nicaraguan refugees. Honduran and UN officials worry that if the incidents continue, Honduras may be forced to take tough action against the refugees.
The incidents involving refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) camp near Jacaleapa, have been caused by a huge influx of the Nicaraguan rebels' relatives, many of whom are young men unaccustomed to the restrictions on life of a refugee camp, Honduran and UN refugee officials as well as refugees say.
The situation came to a head two weeks ago when a group of refugees attacked a Honduran landowner who had detained a refugee in a dispute over firewood.
A crowd of Nicaraguan refugees then descended on the community of San Matias to free the refugee, beating the landowner in the attack. Accounts varied as to how many refugees participated. Neighbors said up to 400 Nicaraguans took part, but one refugee said the number was 50.
Following the incident, which occurred about a mile from Jacaleapa, the Honduran military placed armed guards around the camp. The 7,000 Nicaraguan refugees are now no longer allowed to leave the camp without permission.
Although UN and Honduran officials feel the problems have been solved, tensions remain.
``The refugees feel they can do what they want here [in Jacaleapa] and then go back to their camps without punishment. We want the Hondurans to be respected,'' said Mar'ia Irmina de Barahona, Jacaleapa's mayor. She said townspeople have asked the government to move the refugees away from Jacaleapa, a town of 2,000 about 50 miles southeast of the Honduran capital.
Nicaraguan refugees first began to flow into Honduras in the early 1980s after civilians began to flee the Nicaraguan government. As the number of refugees grew, they mixed freely with the Hondurans. Both refugees and the locals described relations as good.
But since the beginning of the year, when the contras funded by $100 million in United States aid began moving into Nicaragua, the refugee camps of Jacaleapa and Teupasenti grew by 30 percent, to about 11,000 refugees. Teupasenti is about 25 miles north of Jacaleapa.
Tens of thousands of the contras' relatives were left behind along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border when the rebels infiltrated Nicaragua. With no one to care for them, these people opted to move into UN camps.
Local Hondurans charge the refugees with stealing crops and say that refugee youths have clashed with young Hondurans.
``This crisis is principally a consequence of the arrival of new refugees, some of whom have some unsocial behavior,'' said Waldo Villalpando, the UNHCR's representative here.
One refugee at Jacaleapa, who asked not to be named, said between 600 and 700 youths - some of whom were deserters from the rebel army - were causing the problems.
The number of new refugees has made it impossible for the UN to provide adequate care. The refugees complain about shortages of everything from food and medicine to a lack of plots in the Jacaleapa cemetery.
There has also been tension because some recently arrived refugees have been traveling to the nearby Honduran town of Danl'i, a logistical center for the contras, and getting food from rebels. They then sell their UN rations to local Hondurans, said Col. Abram Garc'ia Turcios, the head of the Honduran government's refugee commission.
The refugees' greatest shortage is firewood, which they use for cooking. Many have been forced to scavenge for fuel on private property near the camp, refugees, locals, and officials say.
To cope with so many new arrivals, the UN has opened a new camp near Teupasenti. But many refugees do not want to leave Jacaleapa because it is located on a main highway with easy access to all of Honduras, Colonel Turcios said.
Honduras, bordering on three countries with civil wars - Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala - is home to 50,000 refugees who live under UN care. According to UN statistics this is the highest amount in the region.
While generally supportive of the refugees' plight, many Hondurans feel the country has suffered because of them.
The seriousness of the refugee problem was recognized by five Central American leaders in their peace plan recently signed in Guatemala.