15 Novembre 2019

The Latin American Way: addressing migration and displacement

di Maria Cristina Urbano

 Scenari internazionali


The article reflects the personal views of the author.


The challenges of international migration and displacement capture citizens’ concerns and politicians’ efforts not only in Europe but in the entire world. Three years ago the international community agreed to The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants to express the “political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale. Besides the rhetoric of a non-binding declaration, the adoption of the Global Compact for Refugees and for Migrants did not make much progress, even in the states originally in support of the initiative. Very recently political leaders and the broader humanitarian community gathered in Brussels to discuss about a new migration topic: the Venezuelan exodus.


The International Solidarity Conference on the Venezuelan Refugee and Migration Crisis – co-hosted by the EU, the IOM and the UNHCR – is aimed at raising awareness on the situation of migrants and refugees – as well as the host communities – in the countries of the Latin American region. In absentia of the Venezuelan government, over 120 delegations - ministries of foreign affairs, representative of the EU and the UN, INGOs and private sector - met in Brussels and shared best practices to alleviate the situation of millions of Venezuelans fleeing their motherland and the needs of neighboring countries facing shrinking resources. The conference took place at the end of October, just a few weeks ahead of the Global Refugee Forum. This latter international rendez-vous, scheduled for the 17th and 18th of December in Geneva, will assess the level of progress in the implementation of the Global Compact for Refugees.  


Crises in numbers

Venezuela is only the latest – and not even the sole – migration crisis that has caught the attention of the international community. Taking a look at the world map, it is noticeable how massive displacement and migration phenomena are now common to several continents. The Venezuelan, Syrian and Rohingya crises, for instance, are located in three different geographical areas. Besides the specific cause behind each crisis, be it minority discrimination, war or socio-economic collapse (or a combination of the three), they all have triggered similar human catastrophes within and across their borders.


According to the latest data (EEAS, IOM), 4.5 million people by now have fled Venezuela and reached its neighbors, the number expected to get to 6.5 million by the end of 2020. Colombia has so far been the destination of 1.4 million Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers, followed by Peru (860,000), Chile (371,000), Ecuador (330,000) and Brazil (212,000) (IOM). Even across the Atlantic, in the EU, the number of Venezuelan arrivals are high and expected to increase. As a matter of fact, Venezuelans are in the top-three nationalities for asylum applications in the EU in 2019, the largest absolute increase since last year (EASO). Far from European frontiers, millions of Rohingya refugees are stuck in camps, in appealing conditions, at the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar: during August 2017 alone, 740,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the Burmese border (CGD, IRC). At EU doors, the crisis in Syria in has produced 6.7 million refugees over eight years of war, registered mainly in Turkey (3.6 million), Lebanon (919,578) and Jordan (654,955), while only a little percentage has reached European borders (UNHCR).


It is extremely unlikely that all these people will be able to return their homes any time soon. Even in that case, it would take several years before they would all be able to go back in dignity and security to their own countries. On top of that, refugees and asylum seekers have been facing serious obstacles to integrate in host communities, being subject – with very few exceptions - to restrictions in terms of freedom of movement, access to the labor market, education and health facilities, not to mention discrimination and xenophobia. Besides the restless work of the humanitarian community on the ground and the financial resources collected so far, migrants’ and refugees’ communities are exposed to the tragic risk of ‘losing’ an entire generation, not getting access to education and labor market, ultimately unable to build its own future and contribute to the society they live in.


Poorer Humanitarian Wallets

There are no doubts that such a human tragedy would turn from a contingent emergency into more complex and protracted problems. Conscious of this, the international community has been acting to address the strictu sensu humanitarian crisis on the one hand but, at the same time, has been advocating for a longer term approach and for increased support for national governments and INGOs on the ground. A pressing issue of concern is the increasing gap in humanitarian funding. If the EU has managed to find financial support to address the closer Syrian crisis thanks to the annual Conference to Support the Future of Syria and the Region organized in the past three years, the same cannot be said for other similar situations.


When it comes to Bangladesh, for instance, the pledges for the UN Joint Response Plan – i.e. the resources needed to tackle the humanitarian needs of Rohingyas – have dropped significantly in the past years, the appeal being funded by 69% in 2018 and by 34% only as of July 2019. In the Venezuelan case, the funding gap related to purely humanitarian emergency programs for 2019 now amounts to 52% (UNHCR). In parallel, it is foreseen a substantial increase in financial and technical needs by Latin American host countries. Pledges for the 2020 UNHCR humanitarian appeal, are thus essential to give a realistic answer to the crisis and a strong political signal of support to the countries and population involved.


The Latin American way

Besides being the destination of millions of refugees in just one year, Latin American states have kept their borders open and faced migration with a progressive and welcoming approach, providing alternative legal forms of stay coordinating under the umbrella of the Quito Process. For instance, the government of Colombia agreed upon conceding the citizenship to children born in its country by Venezuelan parents, with the aim of reducing to a minimum the cases of statelessness and thus harmonizing its legislation to that of other Latin American countries that normally apply the ius soli.


Furthermore, as mentioned by High Commissioner Grandi, Venezuelans “are not confined to camps, but live in towns and cities together with local people” (Grandi, 2019), thus facilitating their integration and contribution to the social life of the community. However, facing the obstacles of limited resources and increasing demand of basic services and employ at local level, these countries have recently been experiencing growing xenophobia and intolerance, and are gradually shifting from their original commitments, asking for additional requirements for registration and documentation, which are hard to meet for Venezuelans on the move. Peru, for instance, is now preventing Venezuelans to apply for short-term stays and is requiring, just like Ecuador and Chile, a valid passport rather than a simple national ID to enter the country. These additional requirements may encourage Venezuelans to take illegal routes and endanger their own lives.


Given the situation, however, the Conference managed to convey a positive narrative. The countries of the region – Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Argentina – have made public health, education services and market access for Venezuelans, a priority in the response to the migration crisis, going beyond the ‘hard border’ approach. Venezuelan migrants and refugees have been even depicted, by Chile for instance, to become active electorate of the country by 2021 (EEAS, 2019). Surprisingly, an additional trend of the conference was the lack of differentiation between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’. People fleeing Venezuela are normally collectively referred to as ‘refugees and migrants’, without any special weight given to either of the two legal status. Representatives of the regional governments would rather talk of the hermano pueblo de Venezuela. A similar message is very far from the European context, where refugees and migrants find it difficult to get rid of the label of foreigners and emancipate from their legal status.



Beside the tragedy that has obliged Venezuelans to leave their country and look for a better future in the region and – to a limited extent - in Europe, the crisis in Venezuela and the related International Solidarity Conference has taught the international community that it is possible to learn from the past and apply migrant-friendly solutions to protracted crisis situations. It also paves the way to tackle international migration and displacement with an innovative approach, different from the ones adopted before, even in Europe.


It is true that the Venezuelan crisis has triggered migration flows de facto homogeneous with the receiving host communities in terms of language, religion and history, this should not stop us from advocating for a more human approach to migration and displacement. Prioritizing education, health assistance, protection and integration is still possible when resources are promptly allocated, coordination at regional and international level is boosted and there is a solid political will to act. Empowering and integrating displaced people is indeed the only way to ensure a sustainable, durable and human solution to any crises, where political and diplomatic venues may take longer pathways to produce tangible results. The lessons learned from this diplomatic meeting will hopefully bring a new legacy to the Global Refugee Forum, showing that another way to think and address migration is still possible.


Immagine: Recepción de testimonio en el albergue habilitado en la Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander (11 settembre 2015). Crediti: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Creative Commons Attribuzione 2.0.




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United Nations, New York Declaration, https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/declaration.

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