Latin America struggles to make progress with Syrian refugees
Brazil, Uruguay and Chile have moved to open doors for those fleeing the civil war but results are a mixed bag
At multiple times in the 19th and 20th centuries, Latin America opened its arms to welcome waves of migrants searching a better home and refugees fleeing war or persecution.
Parts of the region have a rich history of immigration from Syria and Lebanon and today, the political rhetoric is been there to support the current growing numbers of Syrian refugees — from what some have called the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century so far — the implementation of efforts to bring them to the region has been far from smooth.
Not only has the Southern Cone’s recent negative economic streak made its shores less liveable and welcoming for its citizens, let alone refugees, political U-turns have also upended those plans.
Brazil takes the lead
Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff declared in 2015 that her country had its “arms open” to Syrian refugees. One of her ministers even trailed a plan in cooperation with the European Union to help 100,000 Syrians to find a home in Brazil over a five-year period. But those plans were never implemented on that kind of scale and since Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office, there have been signs from the new Michel Temer administration that the programme is no longer a priority.
Brazil, the region’s largest country, has received more Syrian refugees than any other country in Latin America. The country is also home to 15 million people of Arabic descent, including three million of Syrian heritage. Starting in 2013, Brazil issued special visas under simplified procedures to allow survivors of the war in Syria to travel to the country, where they can then claim asylum.
“I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the position of our government in receiving individuals who have been expelled from their respective countries,” Rousseff said in September last year.
Referring to the case of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian whose image swept the world after he drowned off the coast of a Turkish beach, Rousseff said European nations were creating problems that blocked the movement of migrants.
“That three-year-old Syrian child died because he was not welcome,” Rousseff said at an event in the northeastern state of Paraiba. “He died because he was abandoned, because countries created barriers to the entrance of that child.”
Welcoming — but well short
Figures published by the Brazilian Justice Ministry indicate that refugee applications have soared by 2,868 percent in the last five years — rising from 966 in 2010 to 28,670 in 2015. As of April of 2016, Brazil had recognised 8,863 refugees from that amount, of which 2,298 or about 25 percent are Syrian. Refugees from the war in Syria are by far the largest group of recognised refugees in Brazil.
While Brazil has welcomed far more Syrian asylum seekers than any other Latin American countries, it has fallen well short of accepting the 100,000 refugees that it promised last year with Rousseff’s impeachment taking the wind out of the sails out of the programme.
BBC Brasil has reported that the Temer administration has decided to suspend its negotiations with the European Union to receive Syrian refugees. The president, who was formerly Rousseff’s vice-president, has orientated his government in the direction of austerity and has been more “security conscious” with regard to its borders. While the government has denied that there had been a suspension of any negotiations, it has confirmed that the existing programme would run through at least September, 2017. The BBC, however, reported that it had seen internal government correspondence which spoke of a freezing of the talks.
Temer, speaking at the United Nations in September, suggested that “welcoming refugees is a shared responsibility” and said Brazil was currently in the process of preparing a new immigration law that has as its objective “guarantee rights, facilitate inclusion and to not criminalise migration.”
During the same speech, Temer also claimed that Brazil was home to over 95,000 refugees — conflating asylum-seekers from Haiti on humanitarian visas in the country, sparking an outcry. Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes eventually recognised that technically the Haitians were not refugees and said that Brazil should be welcoming another 2,700 Syrians through 2017.
Chile gearing up
In Uruguay, the Syrian crisis was given presidential proof of commitment when in October 2014, then-Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica personally welcomed five Syrian refugee families to Montevideo. But the feel-good welcome has not translated into an enduring feel-good story, with the families struggling to integrate culturally and economically.
The initial optimism shown by both the government and the 42 refugees has since then broken down into struggles to make ends meet, a lack of opportunities, trouble with the language and the high cost of living. Last year the families protested in front of the presidential headquarters, demanding they be allowed to leave the country. One of the five Syrian families, the Aldees, tried to leave Uruguay with tickets they purchased with their own money. But Turkish authorities did not accept them. After being detained for 20 days at the Istanbul airport, the Aldees were forced to return to Uruguay.
A second group of 72 Syrians were due to arrive in February 2015, but the date have been pushed back repeatedly. The Uruguayan press has reported that the government in Montevideo has signalled that, for now, there will not be a second wave of Syrian refugees arriving anytime soon.
Chile is preparing to welcome some 120 Syrian refugees after a year of planning and preparations. The Interior Ministry, which has previous experience with the settlement of Palestinian refugees as recently as 2008, is estimating it will resettle between 100 and 120 individuals who would be able to quickly become integrated and self-sufficient. Access to health and education services as well as language training is contemplated.