Syrian refugees and Latin America: solidarity without diplomacy

Accommodate refugees, ignoring Syria: Latin American solidarity without diplomacy

Latin American countries show of solidarity toward Syrian refugees lacks a direct political involvement in addressing the crisis root causes: the Syrian war

On June 1999 dozens of journalists and Chileans with little national flags cheered the arrival of 26 refugees from former Yugoslavia. The families even appeared few days later on a national television show where the Chilean anchorman surprised one of the refugees and reunited him with Stojanka, the wife he left over in Yugoslavia. But few months later, deceived by the promises they made them, no job and no house, refugees treated to start an hunger strike for better conditions. Finally, after less than one year, 21 of them decided to go back to war-torn Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslavian refugees experience in Chile in the 1990’s evokes the recent sit-in staged in central Montevideo by the few Syrian refugee families who arrived in Uruguay last year and who are actually asking to be sent back to the Lebanese refugee camp where they were picked up. But it is also a reprimand for those countries, especially in Latin America, which are determined to genuinely accommodate refugees, but without long terms plans and with the attempt to capitalize the opportunity at political level.

Solidarity by emotional and internal political motivations

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a strong allied of Syrian Bashar al-Assad, surprisingly announced the plan to welcome 20.000 Syrian refugees. While he blamed ISIS and Western agents as the root cause of the refugees drama, Maduro’s declaration coincided with an internal political and economic crisis which led to the forced expulsion from the country of around 2.000 Colombians and of around 18.000 more who voluntarily left Venezuela only in the last month. For the moment, Maduro’s proposal did not follow up yet with any specific plan.

Last year, former Uruguay President Pepe Mujica captured international attention when he received at the airport of Montevideo five Syrian refugee families. Mujica’s political opponents and conservative forces harshly criticized the humanitarian operation, and the Syrian families caught the attention of local media due to their limited integration. Even if Syrian refugees who camped in central Montevideo took the opportunity of the global interest on the crisis to get a ticket back to Lebanon, and probably move then to Germany, no doubt Uruguayan authorities’ plan lacked of long terms solutions. Indeed, the planned arrival of other Syrian refugees, around 70, has been postponed to the end of the year.

Integration and the lesson from Arab Americans

Syrian refugees lack of integration in Uruguay is to be related too with their total disconnection with the community of Arab descendants whom ancestors migrated to many Latin American countries since the beginning of the XX century. Uruguay small community of Arab descendants has not been actively involved in the government’s plan to accommodate Syrian refugees. Arab migrants who arrived in the last century managed in few generations to reach important economic and political positions. Behind obstacles and stigmatization, Arab migrants aimed to settle down in that land of opportunities and to fully integrate into their new society. Something that seems missing today among Syrian families in Uruguay and elsewhere.

A cautious and more planned solidarity

While the well-publicized Uruguay humanitarian operation had been for the moment full of troubles, other countries in the region were more cautious but not less effective. Brazil, with a population of more than 10 million Arab descendants, is actually the country in the region which accommodates more refugees, and along with others, the one which presents more sustainable programs. Since the start of the war in Syria, around 2000 Syrians settled in Brazil, thanks to a 2013 decree which facilitated their asylum petitions. Under pressure from local organizations and Arab descendants, President Dilma Roussef declared her intention to extend the Syrian humanitarian visa program. Argentina, which received around 200 Syrian refugees in the last years, placed as condition for Syrian asylum seekers a personal invitation from a relative or acquaintance living in the country. The Chilean government, reminding the shameful experience of the 1990’s, decided to follow the Argentinean example.

Looking for root causes of the crisis

Latin American countries coincidental rush to embrace Syrian refugees shows the different faces of solidarity in this global crisis and, beside the emotional response, how it often mixes with improvised solutions or its politically motivated use. While Chilean society has been discussing since the government announcement how to accommodate the few families of refugees who will participate in the program, Maduro’s proposal instead, which big numbers had a strong international media impact, did not follow up publicly with any specific plan.

Venezuela, Brazil and Chile humanitarian plans to receive Syrian refugees are good news. However, they just represent remedial solutions. Considering these countries relation with some of the main actors involved in the Syrian war, solidarity needs to go with a more direct political involvement in solving the crisis root causes. The countries of the region showed an almost unified political position on other issues, such as the recognition of Palestine as a state or against Israeli military aggressions against Gaza. But no such stance is evident on the ongoing Syrian war. Something which still follows the cautious or critical position from the region’s main leaders on Arab popular mobilizations since 2011.

The many geopolitical interests and economic agreements of Syria, Iran and Russia with several Latin American countries, along with shared ideological counter-hegemonic stances, are the main reasons for their reticence to face the political side of the issue. If it is difficult to expect a constructive political stance from Venezuela and other Bolivarian states, which promote a simplistic narrative of Syria attacked by imperialist agents, not much contributions is coming from the other countries of the region. In a speech at UN General Assembly in September 2014, Dilma Rousseff indirectly criticized the US and global coalition involved in bombing ISIS, and the use of force as a solution for Middle East and global problems as “incapable of eliminating the underlying causes of conflict”.

But occasional criticism of US policies and Israeli offensives along with good humanitarian intentions seem not enough in order to stop the brutal Syrian war. For the time being, Rousseff and Latin American’s leaders seem more interested in solving internal political and economic problems and not instead using the refugee crisis to search for a solution to the Syrian war. And Syrian refugees are quickly realizing the difficulty to settle in Latin America, which offers no much opportunities for social mobility like in the past, State help is limited, and where a large strata of population already live in poverty.