Conflict Prevention

Juan Carlos Murillo Gonzales – Costa Rica 

Full title:


[This talk was given during the meeting of International Theosophy Conferences: “KARMIC CYCLES: WHEELS OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH”, in Wheaton, Illinois, August 9-12, 2012.]

Juan Carlos Murillo Gonzales

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be here today and to present some ideas related to the international protection of refugees, particularly as regards to some field examples on how to promote conflict prevention, conflict resolution and reconciliation among forcibly displaced populations. 

Over the past years, I have been in contact and benefited from the close friendship and exchange of ideas with theosophists living in Costa Rica and The Netherlands. I believe that those discussions have helped me to have a quite different and broader perspective of life, the world and the way I do my work for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), particularly in the field of promotion of international refuge law.

In a context whereby the humanitarian space is shrinking worldwide, the dissemination of the principles of unity, international cooperation and solidarity are essential to protect those in need. The institution of asylum and refugee protection is rooted in the noblest principles of mankind: the respect of the dignity and the human rights for all individuals without any discrimination.

The notion of “cycles” is also a familiar feature in refugee protection. In fact, we might find this notion in three different manifestations:

We refer to the “cycle of displacement” to summarize all the dynamic phases or the whole experience that a forcibly displaced person has to go through from fleeing his/her country of origin, having access to safety in a foreign territory, to the actual exercise and enjoyment of rights and duties abroad, and the finding of a durable solution.  For example, let’s think about the case of a Colombian teacher affected by internal armed conflict in his/her community, who in order to safe his life and security due to the frequent clashes between the army and guerrilla members crosses an international boundary into a neighboring country (i.e. Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil or Panama). Later on, the person is granted refugee recognition and then, opts for permanent residence and naturalization to end or disrupt the cycle of displacement in the hosting country.

In many parts of the world refugee crisis tend to be cyclic. In the Americas, in the 50 and 60’s, refugee movements came mainly from the Caribbean. In the 60 and 70’s refugees came from the southern part of South America (i.e. Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile). Then you had the humanitarian crisis in Central America and in recent years, the majority of the Latin American refugees come from the Andean region (mainly from Colombia). In many countries, a person or a whole community might suffer forced displacement and become refugees more than once. Think about Haiti, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and how their nationals have been affected by forced displacement many times over the past decades. At the same time, when root causes of forced displacement are not properly addressed or new forms of violence emerge, this might lead to new refugee situations. Hundreds of persons are currently fleeing violence at the hands of drug cartels in Mexico and criminal gang organizations in the northern triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). Violence, armed conflict and refugee situations tend to be cyclic all over the world (Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Western Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, etc.) 

Political will, international cooperation and support are needed to find durable solutions for refugee situations. However, the humanitarian commitment of the international community, States and populations varies according to different political, cultural and socioeconomic circumstances. This explains why some cycles of human history are characterized as more humanitarian than others or we might say that some cycles of human history are more conducive for the adoption and the provision of protection responses for those in need. The end of the cold world did not put an end to forced displacement; new conflicts erupted due to ethnic and religious differences. Refugees are no longer welcome in many parts of the world where a new emphasis on security and migration control measures is on the rise.


Social tensions and disharmony in the forms of persecution, human rights violations and conflict are at the origin of forced displacement, affecting refugees and other uprooted populations (i.e. internally displaced populations and returnees).

While everybody is entitled to basic human rights under international law, people are still being targeted, harassed and severely discriminated against because of having a different political opinion, religion, race, and nationality or because of belonging to a particular social group. In some cases, the various forms of persecution affecting the life, freedom or security of a person might even emanate from the perception, belief or imputation by a State, a non-state actor or sectors of the population that the individual has a certain political opinion or a given religion (or lack of it).

Refugees are like you and I, human beings, with aspirations, goals and wishes, strengths and weaknesses but unlike us, they do not have the national protection of their own States, either because they cannot provide this protection or because they are unwilling to do it (i.e. failure or lack of national protection).

Persecution might be also linked to age (i.e. forced recruitment of children), gender (sexual and gender-based violence, including trafficking in persons) and diversity (i.e. Afro-descendants, indigenous populations, sexual orientation and gender identity).

While the actual exercise and enjoyment of basic human rights allow all of us to grow and develop in a society, in a given country, in many parts of the world intolerance, discrimination, and xenophobia still lead to persecution, conflict and human rights violations rendering life unbearable for many. As you can imagine, in the XXI century, persecution remains unfortunately a contemporary feature and in many places around the world, those who dare to think and act differently might become displaced persons and might need to flee to save their life, freedom and security and those of their loved ones.

According to UNHCR statistics, 800,000 persons became new refugees at the end of 2011 bringing the total figure of refugees to more than 14 million around the world (including some 4 million Palestinian refugees under the UN Work and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in Near East, UNWRA), 10% of who live in the Americas. While this figure might be considered too high in terms of human suffering, it is important to mention that there are also 26 million of persons internally displaced (more than 3.6 million in Colombia alone) and 12 million stateless persons around the world.

Forced displacement often involves leaving everything behind, including, quite often, family members and to start over in a different community or country. Survivors of persecution, conflict and massive violations of human rights will adopt with resilience various coping mechanism based on the circumstances of fleeing and ensuring access to safety.

As far as putting an end to the cycle of displacement and finding solutions for refugee situations, we might see also some interesting trends at the end of 2011:

1.    Voluntary repatriation (going back to the country of origin) became the best solution for only 532,000 refugees. This means that only 5% of the total number of refugees benefitted from this durable solution and that the prevailing conditions in countries of origin were not conducive for many refugees to consider the possibility of going back home. This is a significant change compared to the 90’s where hundreds of thousands of refugees were able to voluntarily return to their countries of origin.

2.    During the same year 2011, almost 80,000 refugees (1% of the total refugee figures) were able to travel to and establish themselves in a third country under resettlement arrangements with the participation of 25 receiving countries. 80% of those resettled refugees came to United States of America and Canada.

3.    During 2011, 4/5 of the refugees fled to neighboring countries and 7.1 million refugees (out of 10.4 million under UNHCR) have been in exile at least 5 years. This means that under the present circumstances, remaining and starting a new life in the asylum country through local integration with the support of hosting communities should be further promoted and explored for the majority of the refugees in cooperation with hosting States, the international community and organizations of civil society.

4.    By the end of 2011, some 2,596,000 refugees were living in camps in rural areas, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa (60%) and Asia (35%). In many countries around the world, refugees are supposed to reside in camps where humanitarian assistance is provided. This limits not only the freedom of movement of refugees but their opportunities for self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Refugees should not be seen as beneficiaries or recipients of humanitarian assistance, but as agents of change and factors of development. It is important to note that refugee camps were abolished in the Americas by mid-90.

Going back to the issue of cycles in human history, we need to consider how to put an end to the “forced displacement cycle”. However, the question remains how to overcome the psychological trauma of losing one’s home and going into exile, which often means losing contact with loved ones and supporting communities. How to empower refugees to start over in a new society? New generations might be born in exile and listen to the parents’ recollection of a society and a country unknown to them and parents might tend to highlight only the positive aspects that they remember and miss of their countries of origin (i.e. Ulysses syndrome).

When going back home is feasible, how to restore the social tissue to overcome possible resentments among refugees and those who actually generated the forced displacement? How to foster healing and reconciliation efforts among those who left and those who remain in the country? What coping mechanisms are needed to deal with psychological trauma as part of healing and confidence building efforts?

Yet, peace efforts, the restoration of the rule of law and the improvement of human rights conditions might enable the possibility of going back to countries of origin. In the case of Central America (i.e. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala), peace building, democratization and reconciliation efforts were directly linked to the voluntarily repatriation of refugees and other displaced persons. In fact, the 1987 peace agreements explicitly refer to the situation of Central American refugees and their voluntary repatriation.

However, when able to going back to their communities or countries of origin, displaced populations might be faced with the fact they are returning to places that they no longer recognize as their own or to places where they might have to live along with those who forced them into fleeing, in the first place. This was the case of refugees returning to Argentina and Chile, but also to Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Displaced populations might be coming back to communities where they will have to live with people who never left and/or people who were brought and settled in by the very same persecutors and who took possession of their houses and properties. This was the case of Mayan descendent refugees in Guatemala where access to land plots play an important role as part of their Cosmo vision. In these complicated circumstances, how do you foster reconciliation efforts? What prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms are needed to ensure the sustainability and durability of any solution?

Maybe some lessons might be drawn from the experience of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico. During the 70’s and 80’s thousands of Guatemalan peasants and Mayan descendants were sent into exile in Mexico and other countries as part of a strategy to combat people perceived as being the social base of guerilla movements or because of living in areas considered as their strongholds. Many of those who flee did not have access to education and health posts in Guatemala, and did not even speak Spanish. In Mexico, over 20 years they started over a new life with access to basic facilities, they learned Spanish and participated in awareness raising activities regarding their human rights and duties, community empowerment and organization, women’s rights, vocational training, and they also actively participated in water and sanitation projects and the training of education and health promoters. For many growing children and the newborns, Mexico became their homeland and only point of reference.

During their tenure in Mexico, Guatemalan refugees were able to highly contribute in the agricultural field and other income generation activities, mainly in the southern states of Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo, which economies grew with the support of the “hombres de maiz” (“corn men”, as Guatemalan Mayan-descendant populations identify themselves). However, the elderly and the grown ups always dreamt about going back to Guatemala and that possibility became a reality during the 90’s before, during and after the peace accords of 1996. Referring once again to cycles, some people refer to those years as the “renaissance of the Mayan culture in Guatemala.”

Healing efforts as part of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and reconciliation measures might be summarized as follows:

1.    Knowing your rights and duties as an individual as a means to community empowerment.

When individuals are aware of their rights and duties, they are better prepared to understand that they do not live in isolation, that they are part of a community, a society, a nation, a country. We are interconnected and our rights and duties presuppose the understanding of the rights and duties of others. My well-being is dependent on the well-being of others. So in order to have stronger communities, we need to start with the individuals and make them aware of their rights and duties. Building on the knowledge of basic human rights, community-based approaches help us to support displaced populations in overcoming individualism and on looking for ways to attend and respond to the needs of the collectivity.

Human rights awareness training for Guatemalan refugees started in Mexico, well before any voluntary repatriation took place. They needed to recognize themselves as holders of human rights and duties, in equal footing like any other human being, without any discrimination between men and women. Guatemala refugees learnt about their basic human rights in Mexico, at the same time that they had access to education and health facilities in their normal daily life as part of a family and a community. This became such a factor of change that they were able to negotiate directly with the Guatemalan government the terms of their voluntary repatriation (06 October 1992 agreements), being the first time in this continent that refugees themselves negotiate the conditions for their voluntary repatriation. Upon return to Guatemala, they also realized that human rights were not only part of their exile experience in Mexico, but that they also apply anywhere in the world. Women did not renounce to their rights and community organizations once back in Guatemala and for the first time in their lives, they became property owners and members of cooperatives on their own right on equal footing as men.

2.    Looking for commonalities rather than differences.

In order to promote coexistence, tolerance and respect, displaced populations need to recognize, acknowledge and value commonalities with local populations (i.e. those who never left and those who were brought into their communities of origin). For instance, in many cases they will belong to the same minorities (i.e. indigenous populations, Afro-descendants), they might have the same professional or occupational background (i.e. peasants), the same language, culture, nationality or religious beliefs. In a way, all of them have been affected by forced displacement as a country, nationality or community.

In Guatemala, many of the land plots previously owned by refugees were given to new owners or were occupied by other destitute peasants, with or without the support of different actors. Land restitution became problematic, as later witnessed also in former Yugoslavia. So the question was, how to promote co-existence and reconciliation, taking into account that we are talking about the same destitute peasants of Mayan origin, for whom land ownership constitute an element of survival?

Long dialogues were promoted among those populations to identify common interest and similar characteristics and to get to know each other much better. Third parties were present in the dialogues, acting more as witnesses and facilitators, than as external negotiators. This is a key element, because third parties usually are only temporarily in the country and any lasting solution should not be dependent on their continued support or coaching.

Once those commonalities have been identified and underlined, efforts should also be undertaken within the community to recognize and value differences and their contribution to a multicultural society. As human beings, as part of our traditional way of thinking, we might be afraid of the “other”, usually perceived as different, as a foreigner or as an alien. In fact, differences should be seen as complementary assets to benefit the community.

As previously mentioned, many refugees have learnt a new language, new vocational and professionals skills, and have benefited from living in multicultural societies. The experience of living abroad, even during exile, has expanded their way of thinking and the way they react to what is perceived as “different”.

Refugees are survivors of persecution, human rights violations and violence, but as human beings they are also agents of change and factors of development.

3.    Bottom up approaches to prevention and resolution of conflict.

No solution is sustainable when a third party imposes or instigates it. Change comes from “within” and not from outside. Healing efforts should come and be identified by the community itself with the support and coaching of third parties.

In our experience, displaced populations tend to live in isolated and impoverished areas in rural or urban settings with scare access to public facilities and lack of presence of state and development institutions. Rather than waiting for the State and other external actors to be present and provide responses, the community needs to organize itself and look for solutions. This organization will attract the attention of other actors, including state institutions.

We need to start with a bottom up approach, rather than waiting from responses or solutions to come from outside or from a third party. By doing so, communities realize that they cannot expect change to come from abroad as an external factor. It can neither be an imposition nor a gift done by others. For real change to take place, it has to be done by them and for them, provided that they fully recognize that change is within them. They should understand that they are the agents of change. Healing efforts should be built upon this premise for reconciliation to be sustainable and durable.

In the case of Guatemalan refugees, this community based approach started in Mexico well before any voluntary repatriation movement became feasible. Individuals and communities learnt to depend on their own, through empowerment and community organization. Many of the infrastructure work needed for the returnee settlement was built directly by the community. Many health and education promoters, trained in Mexico, started to provide services to their communities, before any facilities were built or the Guatemalan government formally hired them. Following the establishment of new returnee settlement in different parts of the country, national and international institutions started to be present in those areas and to offer new programs.

Refugee protection involves nowadays many challenges. Situations of tension leading to forced displacement are present worldwide, fuelled by the emergence of new actors and forms of persecution.

Refugee crisis tend to be cyclic in an environment whereby the humanitarian space is shrinking with increasing emphasis on security issues and migration control measures by States. Refugees are perceived as threats rather than persons in need of protection in various countries around the world.

Awareness raising activities should be promoted with hosting communities to realize that refugees are agents of change and factors of development. Commonalities of individuals and communities rather than differences should be underlined and differences should be seen as complementary assets. Mixed societies will be in a better position to benefit from and understand this dynamic reality where all of us are united and interconnected. This represents a higher responsibility for some individuals, societies and countries.

Every one of us can contribute to put an end to the cycle of forced displacement, affecting so many people around the world. Refugee protection is about knowledge, skills and particularly about attitudes. So, refugees and displaced persons count on your sustained support.

V. Bibliographic references

1.    UNHCR, The State of the World Refugees: In search of Solidarity, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 2012.

2.    UNHCR, Global Trends 2011: A year of crises, Geneva, June, 2012.


The ideas expressed by the author in this article are his own and does not represent by any means the ideas or positions of UNHCR or the UN, in general.


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