During a fleeting visit to the United States in which he met with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Argentine Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña announced that President Mauricio Macri’s administration had made the commitment to welcome 3,000 Syrian refugees.
“We confirm Argentina’s intention to welcome refugees escaping the crisis unfolding in the Middle East. We’re willing to receive 3,000 refugees and be a part of the solution to this global issue,” Peña told La Nación shortly after the meeting.
He went on to say that the US State Department will provide help to the Argentine Foreign Ministry — which will be in charge of overseeing the initiative — since granting refugee status is usually a pretty complex process in which the UN is also involved. “Our intention is to move forward as fast as possible,” Peña said.
However, welcoming migrants is a much more complicated process than merely granting them asylum and giving them refugee status. For that reason, The Bubble spoke to Argentina’s Amnesty International Director of International Policy and Justice, Leah Tandeter, in order to find out more about how well equipped Argentina is to receive these refugees.
From the very outset of our conversation, Tandeter clarified that Amnesty International “welcomes the administration’s announcement,” but she said that they’re also very concerned about the country’s actual ability to welcome refugees considering that “Argentina doesn’t actually have a relocation program.”
“Receiving refugees is generally very expensive and complex, because you not only have to bring them to the country but also integrate them into society,” she said.
Moreover, Tandeter clarified that, according to certain statements from Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra in March this year, Macri’s administration will only be able to carry out the initiative if it gets external financing to do so: “We are meeting with partners from different countries around the world because we’ll definitely need support in terms of logistics and financing to move forward with it,” said Malcorra during a UN meeting on the Syrian refugee crisis.
However, according to Tandeter, even if Argentina gets the aforementioned financing, it still lacks the infrastructure needed to take care of the refugees who already live in the country: “Today Argentina has a small refugee population who don’t enjoy special protection from the State, as there are no local assimilation programs. The country grants them refugee status, meaning they can legally live in the country, and gives them specific documentation that allows them to access public services, but that’s about it.”
Initially, Tandeter said, the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) provides refugees with accommodations and economic aid, but that’s only for a couple of months. And when the time runs out, the problems begin.
“Many refugees end up having housing crises once the UN aid runs out. Moreover, there are occasions where the refugees’ documentation is not recognized in educational establishments. It’s a rather vulnerable sector and after a while they start facing the same challenges as society’s most vulnerable sectors,” she said. On top of this, most of them don’t speak any Spanish.
Despite the aforementioned structural problems, Argentina has been vocal about welcoming refugees until now. According to La Nación, there are currently around 3,200 people who have refugee status in the country, 286 of whom are Syrians. From 2012 to 2016, the outlet says, Syria topped the charts in the country, followed by Colombia (156), Ghana (37), Ukraine (28), Haiti (27) and Cuba (19).
When it comes to Syrians, Argentina has a swift mechanism that grants them refugee status almost instantly. However, due to a lack of information, the distance between the countries or the high cost of flying from the Middle East, less than 400 people requested asylum in Argentina. All of them had it granted.
Not only that, but the government also approved a protocol — called the Syria Program — that grants a so-called “humanitarian visa” to Syrians who have someone who vouches for them in the country: “They only need someone who lives in the country to present him/herself as a solicitor and make the commitment to take on this person’s expenses during his or her stay in the country. It’s a private initiative where the government doesn’t have to pay anything, only grant visas,” Tandeter explained. However, a little over 200 people applied to the program.
Despite the welcoming policies, Amnesty International is requesting the government get more involved beyond the bureaucracy. Tandeter was quick to say it should help them develop their lives here as much as helping them arrive:
“We need a strong investment from the State. They have to understand that it doesn’t end with the gesture of bringing them to the country, but they also have to make sure they get to assimilate. That to me is the most important aspect and can only be done with non-financial resources. It’s a political decision. We’ve taken 3,200 refugees during the past 20 years. If we’re going to double the amount we clearly have to invest in reinforcing the State structure,” she argued.
When I asked what the State should specifically improve, Tandeter said it mainly has to work on achieving the following:
- Make it easier for their documentation to be recognized
- Provide access to Spanish classes: “For example, refugees currently take Spanish classes from the Catholic Commission, which is employed by the UNHCR. This is something the UN provides. We think the State should do it, especially if it has a policy to welcome refugees.”
- Work on validating refugees’ professional degrees in the country: “Many who flee Syria are highly educated. We have to capitalize on that.”
Tandeter ended by saying she was waiting to learn more about how the Argentine government plans to receive and accommodate the refugees.
“Many experiences in the region and in the world have proven that these initiatives fail when there’s not a strong investment from the State. We think 3,000 is a rather ambitious number for a country that has no experience relocating refugees — which is still a low number taking into account the vast number of people that need to be relocated. At Amnesty, we believe we have to go step by step. First, guarantee the financing, then design a program that takes into account local assimilation,” she finished.
The National Commission for Refugees was unavailable to comment at the time this article was written.