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.

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

Will the U.S. support controls on security contractors in Latin America?

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

An upcoming conference in Switzerland will test U.S. willingness to make good on its rhetorical support for greater control over private contractors involved in wars or similar circumstances.  The “Montreux plus five” conference in December will discuss implementation of the Montreux Document, which lays out legal obligations and “best practices” for countries that hire “Private Military and Security Companies” (PMSCs) during armed conflict.  The process emerged in 2008 to reiterate state responsibilities after contractors were found to be deeply involved in incidents in Iraq – including the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and a confrontation at Nissour Square in which 17 civilians were killed.  The United States, which participated in discussions of the Document and endorsed it, has been developing its own “standards” based on it.

Although the PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their alleged involvement in human rights abuses – are most widely known, security contractors are deeply engaged in U.S. efforts in Latin America related to the “war on drugs.”  In the 2005-2009 period, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC collectively received counternarcotics contracts in Latin America worth a total of $1.8 billion.  The contracts include provision of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, information technology, and communications equipment.  Lockheed Martin received contracts for training, equipment, and other services in Colombia and Mexico. Yet the majority (Democratic) staff of the subcommittee on contracting oversight of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded in 2010 that neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense had adequate systems to track the implementation of counternarcotics contracts.  Referring to contract and accounting errors, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told the subcommittee chairman that it “does not … maintain discrete records of such occurrences since these challenges routinely occur at the embassies.”

The subcommittee’s focus was on contracting anomalies, but publicly acknowledged incidents – such as DynCorp’s violation of guidelines governing coca eradication in Colombia – suggest oversight over operations is also lacking.  In Colombia, for example, two cases of rape of a minor involving U.S. contractors were reported yet remain uninvestigated, and in Mexico a contractor appears to have been involved in torture training.

PMSCs often carry out their work within the dark interstices of sensitive operations – beyond the government’s immediate operational control but functioning with its imprimatur and expecting its protection when things go wrong.  The U.S. Senate’s acknowledgement of the need for better management and oversight over them has not driven significant reforms yet.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are any guide, problems with the monitoring of expenditures are the tip of the iceberg.  Security contractors tend to run rough over human rights, and they are often a source of tensions with both governments and the population in host countries.  The use of security contractors without effective monitoring is a source of diplomatic tension within the region as well.  DynCorp’s aerial eradication operations, for example, provoked Ecuador to file suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Colombia dispersed toxic herbicides into Ecuadoran territory, damaging human health, property and the environment.  The two countries recently resolved the dispute, but the case illustrates the risk of outsourcing sensitive operations to contractors without careful monitoring.