Refugee crisis in Europe: remember Latin America

This is not only a European crisis but a global one, and it should be approached as such, involving nations throughout the world in its solution. As it did in the past, Latin America can give a hand. Português. Español

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Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano Francesc Badia i Dalmases
11 September 2015

Childs at the SS Winipeg in 1939. All rights: Agrupación Winnipeg. CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

European countries seem to have forgotten their not so distant past. Political persecution and ethnic cleansing by totalitarian regimes and the devastation of a continent-wide war led to the displacement of millions in the late 30’s and 40´s. Many had to flee the continent, and seek asylum in the New World.

Thus today's movement of people across the Mediterranean is by no means unprecedented. Migration pressure has been increasingly felt in Europe in recent years. But there has been a change of scale. The number of those who have made their way into Europe in 2015, approximately 350.000, with at least 2.500 tragically dying in the attempt is the biggest in decades.

What is striking, however, is not the amount of illegal crossings and casualties, but the astonishing inability of both national governments and the international community to cope with the situation.

The fact that we are dealing with the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War in Europe does not explain why national governments, the EU and the UN are incapable of tackling the issue. A staggering 59.5 million individuals worldwide were on the run in 2014, 86% of which are hosted as refugees in developing regions.

The EU, the biggest economy in the world, desperately needs immigrants to address its problems of an aging population and stagnating economy. Yet the refugee crisis finds it mired in fear and disagreement.

Securitization is not an answer

European governments and the EU have chosen a securitization and denial-of-entry approach to the issue of migration. Frontex has coordinated the system of border patrols and overviewed the establishment of detention centres, from Melilla in Spain to Maritsa in Greece, contributing to build what is now known as “Fortress Europe”. This approach is now failing for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it makes it harder, and more perilous, for people to reach European shores, yet it hardly deters anyone from trying their luck. Secondly, it blocks all other non-security based policies: when illegal crossings occur, alternative solutions are not considered.

Tackling the crisis by building bigger fences and imposing stricter controls is no solution. Most observers agree that the answer lies in dealing with this issue as the giant humanitarian crisis it is. The focus should be, as a clear priority, on need and need alone. The debate should go beyond European borders and be re-addressed to the United Nations.

This is not only a European crisis but a global one, and it should be approached as such, with member states throughout the world involved  in its solution. Latin America can give us a hand. Brazil and Venezuela's offers to accept substantial numbers of fleeing Syrians are an important early step in this regard.

Melilla, Spain. Flickr. Some rights reserved._0.jpg

Melilla, Spain. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Europe can not wait

The tempo of decision-making at the UN level is too slow, to say the least. The EU, in the meantime, can not wait. Europe must provide urgent assistance to the thousands crossing the Mediterranean every day, both by reducing their misery and keeping casualties to the minimum possible. In this respect, the current focus on smuggling mafias and border controls completely misses the point.

Instead, the crisis should be dealt with a proper common framework of protection for refugees, going beyond the Dublin Regulation (2013) concerning asylum applications. The regulation stipulates that asylum seekers must apply for the status of refugee in the EU country they first set foot in. This clearly does not work, as evidenced by the thousands of refugees stuck at the Hungarian border, crammed into Macedonian trains, and stranded on Greek and Italian islands or in these countries' port facilities.

Refugees and migrants must be provided with alternative, legal and safety mobility solutions. Integrative measures and the development of a strong European common discourse should be a high priority not only for EU officials, but also national governments and political leaders in the member states.

A resettlement programme is needed, if we are to integrate the newcomers in our societies. The proposal to distribute refugees across member states, outlined on 9 September by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, is a positive step in this direction. Syrian, Afghans and Eritreans, for instance, must be assured safe travel and proper settlement conditions. Two related priorities are the establishment of legal routes towards Europe and of search-and-rescue missions.

This is, of course, easily said than done. It is only by changing the approach and by engaging in a debate about values. European values, that solutions will come. At the end of the day, it is the fact that those arriving at our shores have rights: human rights, which is essential.

The politicization of the discourse in Europe, in a context of increasing racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, triggers the dehumanization of refugees and migrants. By depicting migrants and refugees as dangerous Muslims, as a threat to our Christian society and our way of life, some right-wing nationalist political parties, such as the Hungarian Fidesz, are only trying to deprive asylum-seekers of their human rights.

How Viktor Orbán is behaving these days is simply unacceptable.

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012_0_2.jpg

Syrian refugees, 2014. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Latin America: a source of inspiration?

And yet, Europeans need to build on their historic memories and value some examples of how other countries behaved when many of our grandparents found themselves in a similar situation, forced to seek refuge and flee war, destruction, misery and prosecution. The policy of many Latin American countries during the European refugee crisis of the 30’s and 40’s can be a source of encouragement.

México´s government, under president Lázaro Cárdenas, opened its doors to some 25,000 Spanish refugees escaping from Franco at the end of the civil war in 1939. The Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda, later in his career a Nobel laureate, arranged the safe passage of 2,200 Spanish citizens on board the SS Winnipeg to Chile. Albeit these figures might look modest, many more travelled to Latin America through their own means but were never accounted as refugees. Thousands of Portuguese, Italian and Greek citizens escaping dictatorship and fleeing war and repression benefited from open door policies in Latin America.

The fact that so many refugees from southern, central and eastern Europe escaped war torn scenarios and left for Latin America, should act as a reminder that not only Arab or Asian countries like Syria or Myanmar produce refugees. Can Spain, Italy, Greece or Portugal - or indeed Hungary, with its experience of 1956 - forget what happened in the past?

Providing for refugees is not an exclusive responsibility of Europeans. According to Peter Sutherland, the UN special envoy for migrants and refugees, “all countries, should host Syrian refugees. Every country, including Canada, Australia, Latin America, the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and Asia, has an obligation to host Syrian refugees for humanitarian reasons”.

Latin American countries have historically lend a hand to those on the run, be it for economic or for political reasons. Will they do the same now? Brazil for example has officially received more Syrian refugees than Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece. According to The Guardian, 6300 people have been granted visas to enter the country. Moreover, the BBC reports that since the war begun in 2011 until August this year, Brazil hosted 2077 refugees. This figure clearly surpasses the number of Syrian refugees hosted by countries like Spain (1335), Greece (1275), Italy (1005) or Portugal (15) in the same period.

Other Latin American countries have been offering a much more modest aid since the civil war started in Syria. Uruguay welcomed a small number of Syrian refugees: only 42, the BBC reports. Meagre too is the number in Argentina (233), a country with a strong community of Syrian origin, including former president Carlos Menem, who was in office for 10 years.

So far, Chile has made no promises, and Mexican authorities have been extremely shy about the issue. In this traditionally welcoming society, almost 160,000 people have signed a petition in support of a letter asking Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to rescue 10,000 Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, President Maduro offered to host 20.000 Syrian refugees in Venezuela.

The image of a compassionate and caring Latin America is in danger. Latin American countries are culturally open, but bureaucratically closed to refugees. The region is at least 10,000 kilometers away from the crisis zone but it has historically welcomed those on the run, and should not change its mind. There are substantial communities belonging to the Syrian diaspora living in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Colombia. And they are doing well.

Refugees and asylum seekers can contribute to host societies in many very positive ways, much as they have done repeatedly throughout history. The example of what our forebears in Latin American countries did by welcoming them, granting them fair opportunities and allowing them to get on with their lives, is inspiring. It should not be abandoned, neither by Latin American countries nor by European.

It is unacceptable for a continent that has fostered the enshrinement of human rights now to neglect the safety of those who risk their lives to reach it. It is high time to stand for human rights: in Europe, of course, but also in Latin America, and beyond.

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