The Politics of the Refugee Crisis in Latin America

By Luciano Melo*

Syrian refugees Uruguay

Syrian refugees arriving in Uruguay. Photo Credit: International Organization for Migration / Flickr / Creative Commons

Several Latin American governments have pledged to accept Syrian refugees – part of one of the largest refugee movements in history – but support for robust resettlement programs appears likely to fall short.  According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 6 million Syrians have been displaced within their country and 4 million more have fled abroad, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  One million have entered Europe, putting a heavy burden on the EU, and the United States has agreed to settle 10 thousand (although the refusal by 31 U.S. governors to accept them raises questions about follow-up).  Public support for receiving migrants dropped in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November, but France has announced that it will admit 30,000 new refugees in the next two years, a measure that President Hollande characterized as the country’s “humanitarian duty.”

Several Latin American governments also have agreed to absorb refugees.

  • Brazil, with ties to Syrian immigrants since the 19th century and one of the largest communities outside Syria, has promised to accept 20,000 refugees from the current conflict. More than 8,000 have already settled in Brazil.
  • Venezuela also set a goal with the UNHCR of receiving 20,000 Syrians, but President Nicolás Maduro’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “the only leader with authority in Syria” suggests low enthusiasm for implementation.
  • Chile and Argentina have had modest programs to settle Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Chilean President Bachelet has agreed to settle 100 Syrian families, whereas Argentina’s “Syria Program” agreed to offer permanent residence to 300 Syrians after three years.
  • Uruguay, which resettled Syrian families from Jordanian camps in 2004, recently suffered a setback when refugees in September protested in front of a government building complaining about the cost of living and lack of jobs. Observers estimate that almost 100 Syrians will actually leave the country.

The cost of settling families and individual refugees can be high, and each country will face challenges in meeting their commitments.  Brazil is in a deep crisis – with negative GDP growth expected next year, impeachment processes initiating against President Dilma, and gigantic corruption scandals rocking the political system.  The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with skyrocketing inflation, and the country appears to be in permanent political crisis.  Chile has experienced an economic slowdown since the price of copper fell, and Argentina has been trying to recover from recession and double-digit inflation rates in the first months of the newly elected President Macri.  Even Uruguay expects lower growth – down to 2 percent from the previously estimated 2.5 percent – and a fiscal deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP.  The good news is that accepting refugees does not necessarily affect the economy negatively.  Turkey and Lebanon, which have resettled 2.2 million and 1.8 million since the war started, are expected to have 4 percent and 3 percent growth in the coming year, confirming that the issue is mostly political rather than economic.  In Latin America, in contrast with the U.S., the crisis has not been used by leaders to polarize public opinion.  In fact, the topic is barely on the radar of common citizens, and the media rarely cover it.  The Syrian war and ISIS terrorism are remote concerns, and more pressing local matters – recessions, corruption scandals, and impeachments – take precedence.

January 4, 2016

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

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