Monthly Archives: September 2014

FP – ¡Bienvenido, Habibi!

How Latin America is opening its arms to Syrian refugees.

BOGOTÁ — Before he came to Colombia, all that Mohammed had ever heard about the country was “violence, drugs, and war.” Certainly, when the 28-year-old Syrian fled Damascus just over a year ago, Colombia did not register as a possible place to resettle. “I never thought about South America at all,” Mohammed says, sitting in an upscale apartment in Bogotá where he offers visitors coffee, vodka, Oreo cookies, and yogurt. He speaks in a mix of heavily accented English and halting Spanish. “The idea to be a refugee here was so far from my mind.”

But while living in Lebanon, he met a Colombian who said his country was a wonderful place and suggested that Mohammed give it a try. With the help of that friend, Mohammed got to Colombia on a tourist visa. When that expired after three months, he applied for refugee status. Immigration officials “asked so few questions and everything was easy,” he says of the asylum process. “Probably in Europe or America, it would be very hard.” Within just a few months, he had a Colombian identification card and travel document. Now he is pursuing a singing career and earning a living as a runway model for local designers.

If the foremost dream of nearly every Syrian refugee is get out of the cramped, precarious conditions in which they live in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq and return home safely, the second dream is to be resettled in a European country or the United States. Facing strict asylum policies and stiff competition for entry slots in such places, however, the number of Syrians winding up in the coveted West scarcely makes a dent in the 3 million people — according to the United Nations, as of late August — who have been made refugees by their country’s civil war. Meanwhile, for some Syrians, faraway and unfamiliar Latin American countries — Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina among them — are increasingly becoming viable options.

To be sure, the number of Syrians who have fled to Latin America is small: Based on reports, it sits at fewer than 6,000. But Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East with Refugees International, says it’s just a beginning. “This will continue to grow,” she adds.

In part, this is because some Latin American states are drawing on past experience and deciding to open their doors. Historically, the region has taken in many immigrants and asylum-seekers. A wave of Spanish immigrants fled here during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era, and a significant number of Jewish refugees settled in South America during and after World War II. In the late 20th century, the flow was reversed: Latin America’s dictatorships and civil wars created a wave of outbound refugees who sought asylum in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Today, in welcoming Syrians, “Latin America is repaying its debt to the world,” says Javier Miranda, director of the secretariat for human rights of the Uruguayan presidency.

Today, in welcoming Syrians, “Latin America is repaying its debt to the world,” says Javier Miranda, director of the secretariat for human rights of the Uruguayan presidency.Brazil, which has a large Syrian and Lebanese immigrant population, launched a humanitarian visa program in 2013 for those affected by the Syrian conflict. So far, it has issued 4,200 such visas, which give individuals the right to apply for refugee status once they are in the country; as of August, 1,245 applications for refuge had been approved, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). TheGuardian says Syrians have now surpassed Colombians as the largest refugee population in the country. Colombia — which, indeed, thanks to its 50-year-old conflict is better known for producing refugees than for absorbing them — has granted asylum to all Syrians, including Mohammed, who have applied for it since 2011. (Admittedly, at 19 total applicants, the number is negligible.) And Argentina, whose Syrian and Lebanese community accounts for an estimated 10 percent of the total population, has admitted as many as 300 Syrian families in the past two years, according to press reports.

But the boldest experiment in the region comes from tiny Uruguay. The nation of 3.4 million, which sees itself as a bastion of humanitarianism and solidarity, especially under the leadership of President José Mujica, has offered to resettle 120 Syrians. “We know it’s just a drop in the ocean, but drop by drop, oceans are created,” Miranda says. (Comparatively, it’s a bigger drop than some more-developed nations have allowed: For instance, Spain, a country of 47 million, has resettled only 130 Syrians.)

Through a deal with UNHCR, the first 40 refugees will arrive in Uruguay in late September and will initially be housed at a Catholic mission just outside Montevideo, where they will receive health care, a monthly stipend, and education: Spanish classes for adults and regular schooling for children. Eventually, they will be relocated to individual homes. Another 80 are due to arrive in February 2015.

The initiative came about after Foreign Minister Luis Almagro (a strong candidate for the secretary-general of the Organization of American States) visited a UNHCR camp in Jordan while on a tour of the Middle East. What he saw there, he told the press, were “people living in conditions of vulnerability,” especially children. Uruguay proposed taking in 100 or so orphans from the camp, but while UNHCR officials applauded the offer, they reportedly encouraged the Uruguayans instead to bring entire families from camps in Lebanon, where conditions are more difficult. Uruguay accepted but still made a point of selecting families with numerous children, “because they are the most vulnerable,” explains Miranda, who led a mission to Lebanon to interview prospective participants in the program. Uruguayan officials arrived with brochures in Arabic and videos about their country. “We tried not to create any false expectations,” Miranda says.

The toughest challenge will be finding work for the adult refugees. Because a large part of Syria’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, Uruguayan officials had expected that most of the refugees would be farmers. They were surprised at the diversity of occupations: There are construction workers, retail-business owners, and service workers in the initial group, according to Miranda. Officials have had to rethink where families might be relocated; instead of being placing in rural communities, some may end up living in Montevideo and other cities.

The resettled refugees won’t be the only Syrians arriving in Uruguay: The government has also offered to receive six detainees, four of whom are from Syria, cleared for release from Guantánamo Bay after being “held unjustly,” according to Miranda; they cannot return home due to concerns about their security. (They were originally slated to be transferred to Uruguay in September, but the operation has been delayed at least until after the first round of presidential elections in October.)

The Uruguayan government hopes Syrians integrate smoothly into the country’s larger society, but officials are conscious that Uruguay is a fairly homogeneous nation that is not accustomed to new faces. There is no official mosque in the country; Muslim prayer services in Montevideo are held at a small Islamic cultural center. The government also faces criticism that the program is largely self-serving. “President José Mujica’s aspirations of winning the Nobel Prize for Peace and the desire of Foreign Minister Luis Almagro to become secretary general of the OAS [Organization of American States] have become the central axis of Uruguay’s foreign policy,” columnist Tomás Linn wrote in Búsqueda, a news magazine.

Miranda, however, sees welcoming Syrians as a possible first step toward a broader refugee and resettlement policy that could benefit Uruguay in the long run. “Bringing in people with different backgrounds could help us grow as a society,” he says. He also hopes other countries in the region will follow Uruguay’s lead. “We are hoping to create a sort of ‘contagion effect,'” he says.

Refugee agencies hope so too. “This could encourage other nations in Latin America to take in more refugees,” says Grisgraber of Refugees International.

Mohammed, in Colombia, says he would not mind seeing more compatriots in his host country. Since arriving, he has not met another Syrian.

Nonetheless, he says, Colombia has turned out to be the perfect choice for asylum. Though he longs for home and worries about his family still in Damascus, he says he is making every effort to integrate — with good results. His physical appearance, uncommon in the country, helped him land modeling work and he has recorded his first song, an electronic dance track with lyrics in both Spanish and Arabic, in a local studio. “It is a mix of my two worlds,” he says.



AP Interview: Brazil’s Silva wants better US ties

 September 17 at 7:09 PM
RIO DE JANEIRO — Marina Silva, a front-running presidential candidate who grew up in the Amazon jungle and could become the first black to lead Brazil’s government, said Wednesday that if elected she’ll improve ties with the U.S. and strongly push for human rights in nations like Cuba.

She spoke exclusively to The Associated Press in her first interview with a foreign media outlet since being thrust into Brazil’s presidential campaign after her Socialist Party’s original candidate died in an Aug. 13 plane crash.

Silva, a former Amazon activist, senator and environment minister who pushed policies that helped Brazil slash the rate at which it was destroying the jungle, has found herself at the center of a suddenly hot presidential race pitting her against President Dilma Rousseff, with whom she’s running in a dead heat in the latest polls. The incumbent represents the Workers Party, which Silva helped found three decades ago.

“Brazil has a great opportunity to become a global leader by leading by example,” Silva said in talking about human rights and environmental protections. “Our values cannot be modified because of ideological or political reasons, or because of pure economic interest.”

Pressed on whether she would continue Brazil’s strong investment in and political support of regimes like Cuba, Venezuela, China and Iran, Silva said that dialogue is essential with each — but that her personal convictions means Brazil would be more vocal in pushing human rights.

“The best way to help the Cuban people is by understanding that they can make a transition from the current regime to democracy, and that we don’t need to cut any type of relations,” Silva said. “It’s enough that we help through the diplomatic process, so that these (human rights) values are pursued.”

Brazil’s relationship with the U.S. has been chilly since revelations more than a year ago that the National Security Agency’s espionage programs directly targeted Rousseff and other Brazilian officials. The NSA also swept up information on billions of phone calls and emails that traffic through Brazil, an important transit hub for trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cables.

After the revelation, Rousseff became one of the globe’s most outspoken critics of the U.S. spy program and she cancelled her earlier acceptance of President Obama’s invitation for a formal state visit — the first offered to a Brazilian leader in two decades and the first time in memory a foreign leader rejected the honor.

Silva said the U.S. spying was a grave error and it could never be tolerated by her, but she added that it is time to move on.

“Both nations need to improve this situation, to repair the ties of cooperation,” she said. “The Brazilian government has the absolute right to not accept any such interference. But we also cannot simply remain frozen with this problem.

“We will have the will … to rebuild the relationship,” Silva added.

 Click here for original article.

Ecuador y China acuerdan impulsar la cooperación militar | El Comercio

Los gobiernos de Ecuador y de China manifestaron hoy, 16 de septiembre, su voluntad de impulsar la cooperación militar entre ambos países en una reunión en Pekín entre la ministra de Defensa ecuatoriana, María Fernanda Espinosa, y su homólogo chino, Chang Wanquan. Ambos funcionarios mantuvieron un encuentro en la sede del Ministerio de Defensa de China, en el primer día del viaje de la ministra ecuatoriana a ese país, que se prolongará hasta el próximo viernes, y en el que visitará además las ciudades de Nanjing y Shanghái. Durante la reunión, el ministro chino de Defensa confió que el viaje de Espinosa ayude a aumentar su conocimiento sobre el Ejército Popular de China, pero sobre todo a profundizar los intercambios y la cooperación en el ámbito militar. La ministra coincidió con su anfitrión e incidió en que su visita “se enmarca en una relación amplia y completa” entre ambos gobiernos. “China es el socio geoestratégico comercial y económico más importante que tiene en estos momentos Ecuador”, señaló Espinosa, que recordó a los presentes la multitud de acuerdos de colaboración entre ambas naciones en distintas materias. En defensa, explicó que existen cinco convenios activos con China, y un proyecto para fortalecer las capacidades y la formación del personal militar ecuatoriano en China, además de en Ecuador por parte de, por ejemplo, instructores de artes marciales o de profesores de chino para enseñar este idioma en la universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas. Con el encuentro celebrado hoy y con los previstos los próximos días, se espera que Ecuador aumente el intercambio con China en este ámbito, pero también explore otras áreas de cooperación hasta ahora no planteadas. Para ello, la ministra visitará varias empresas centradas en el desarrollo de la industria y la tecnología de la defensa, además de una academia militar de comando en Nanjing que actualmente acoge a un oficial del país andino. El viaje de Espinosa se produce después de que Ecuador y China firmaran a principios de este mes un acuerdo de asistencia militar que busca fomentar el fortalecimiento de las relaciones bilaterales en el campo de la defensa. El convenio, suscrito en Quito por la ministra ecuatoriana y el embajador chino en Ecuador, Wang Shi Xiong, supone la entrega de 4,8 millones de dólares por parte de China, que será empleado por Ecuador en la inversión de indumentaria necesaria para las unidades de la defensa nacional.

Este contenido ha sido publicado originalmente por Diario EL COMERCIO en la siguiente dirección: Si está pensando en hacer uso del mismo, por favor, cite la fuente y haga un enlace hacia la nota original de donde usted ha tomado este contenido.
Dr. Ana AlvesAssistant Professor of Political Science
Lee University