If you’ve been reading the headlines over the past few weeks, you may have come to the conclusion that President Mauricio Macri’s administration has taken it upon itself to bring 3,000 Syrian refugees into the country, as the head of state himself mentioned at the UN General Assembly last month.
The truth is a bit more complicated. Even though the government does have every intent to bring in a significant number of Syrians escaping their war-torn country and has effectively taken measures to make it happen, there’s less to the initiative than initially meets the eye. A closer look at the Syria program and the decree creating the eponymous cabinet — tasked with ensuring the program goes smoothly — reveals the government will not really be selecting or really even bringing 3,000 refugees into the country. That number, it turns out, is more symbolic than anything else.
In order to get a better understanding of the program that has made headlines around the world, The Bubble spoke to National Undersecretary for Migration Julián Curi.
Curi explained that the most significant steps the government has taken to increase the number of refugees is relax certain requirements in the Syria Program so more private citizens and organizations can take in refugees. That’s when it created the so-called “cabinet” to improve infrastructure and help refugees adapt to the country once they’re here.
Instituted during the tenure of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the program instantly grants Syrians humanitarian visas as long as they can prove there is someone in the country to help pay for their living expenses.
Those who obtain the visa will be given an ID for two years, which they will be able to renew for another year. During that period, the beneficiary has the same civil, social and economic rights of any Argentine. After that, they will be able to apply for definitive citizenship. Before the new plan was approved, the program only allowed people who had familiar or other types of ties with the candidate act as sponsors (or “callers” as the government describes them) of the refugees.
What the government has done now is “enabled more parties to act as ‘callers’ — “religious institutions, for example,” Curi said. “We are also promoting the program … Every day people are coming to sign up,” he added.
Moreover, the new program allows Syrians to process their humanitarian visa from any Argentine consulate in the world. What private parties will still be responsible for, just like before, is committing to providing food, housing and support to those they sponsor, should they not be able to do it on their own.
So what can the government do to better support arriving Syrians? “Once here, what we’ve done is add more support in some areas, such as providing language courses,” Curi said. “We also included them in the Education Ministry’s programs so they can learn different crafts and also help them by speeding up the bureaucratic process.”
So if the government isn’t actually promoting the arrival of refugees, where does the number 3,000 come from? Turns out, 3,000 is just a “a goal that we have,” Curi said. “We believe that, with that number, Argentina would be making a significant contribution.”
There are currently 200 applications being processed, Curi said. But considering the government is dependent on the kindness of others, it has no way of knowing whether more will be coming in the future. Fortunately for the refugees, there are many in Argentina eager to lend a hand.
As many as 1,300 Syrian refugees have arrived in Argentina since the conflict started. “The number fluctuates because many have gone back to their countries. Their families call them, maybe they go to a part of Syria were there are no conflicts anymore. It has to do with different factors. People have strong ties with the country, they want to go back,” Curi explained.
Even though some local media outlets have reported that the government sent intelligence agents to UNHCR refugee camps in Aleppo to select potential candidates, Curi said that was a fundamental misunderstanding on how the program worked because “the government can’t go and look for someone who doesn’t want to come,” Curi said. “It’s up to them.”
Officials did go to the camp but it was to “asses the situation,” Curi added, explaining he was one of those who went.
There’s another obstacle to expanding the Syria refugee program: a lack of funding. Both President Mauricio Macri and Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra have repeatedly said Argentina would largely depend on foreign funding to implement the initiative. That has yet to arrive.
“So far financing comes exclusively from the national government’s coffers,” Curi said. “No additional funds have been assigned [for the program’s expansion] but we have reallocated funds from different ministries and applied them to this.”
Once the refugees are in Argentina, the Macri administration checks in on them “to see how they are doing,” Curi said. “Most went to the northern provinces because of the large Syrian-Lebanese communities that are there. But some also went to Córdoba, La Pampa, the City of Buenos Aires. The distribution is quite even across the country.”