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UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: South America

UNHCR Fundraising Reports, 1 December 1998

In South America, UNHCR's objectives and concerns are situated within two distinct sub-regional contexts. In the Southern Cone (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay), which includes many of the more economically developed and institutionally stable countries in the region, refugees benefit from generally liberal policies towards migration and asylum. With the exception of the prevailing situation in Peru, which requires close follow-up by UNHCR, there is an overall absence of humanitarian crises.

In northern South America, UNHCR is most concerned about the increase in incidents of forced displacement resulting from the conflict in Colombia and about the effects of those displacements on neighbouring countries (particularly Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela). Although no major outflows have yet occurred, the number of Colombian asylum-seekers, in both neighbouring countries and in traditional asylum countries in Western Europe, is rising.

UNHCR has taken steps to reinforce its presence in northern South America. Discussions are underway with the Government of Panama concerning the possible opening of a Liaison Office in Panama City towards the end of 1998. In mid-1998 UNHCR also established a limited presence in Colombia itself, pursuant to the Government of Colombia's request for UNHCR's cooperation and expertise in support of national efforts on behalf of internally displaced populations. UNHCR's presence in Colombia, operating under the purview of UNHCR's office in Caracas, Venezuela, also supports activities to strengthen asylum and promote durable solutions for Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries and elsewhere. Additional financial requirements on behalf of Colombians, both refugees/asylum-seekers in border regions of the three neighbouring countries (Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela) and internally displaced persons, will be presented to donors in 1999, upon conclusion of needs identification exercises and agreements with concerned national authorities.

Throughout South America there are some 4,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers originating from Africa (especially Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola), Latin America and Eastern Europe. Almost half of the refugee population in South America is composed of single young men aged 17 to 35 years. Arrivals from outside the continent are increasing.

Objectives and Priorities

UNHCR draws upon the emerging strengths in the region and addresses risk factors by focusing on three primary objectives: strengthening the legal and institutional framework for international protection, with special emphasis on volatile areas of the region; consolidating durable solutions for refugees; and building awareness and support for refugees and UNHCR's humanitarian programmes with Governments and the general public.

During 1999, key protection activities of UNHCR throughout South America will include promoting accession and adherence to the major refugee and statelessness instruments, encouraging enactment of national refugee legislation in conformity with international norms and standards, and providing support to strengthen institutions that ensure the protection of refugees. In Brazil, UNHCR supported the drafting and implementation of the Domestic Refugee Law and the establishment, in June 1998, of the National Commission for Refugees. In Argentina, the agency is assisting in the drafting of new refugee legislation, while in Bolivia discussions are underway with the Government concerning a new Migration Law which includes a chapter on refugees. UNHCR also works to ensure that asylum-seekers have access to eligibility procedures and that UNHCR has unhindered access to them. Such concerns are of particular importance in countries bordering Colombia where UNHCR will continue to assess protection and assistance needs in the border areas amongst persons of concern to the Office.

Developing Partnerships

The Office further complements these activities by developing partnerships with key actors in civil society, human rights bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the legal community, academia, as well as regional organizations. In 1998, an agreement was concluded with the Andean Commission of Jurists covering collaboration in dissemination and promotion of human rights and refugee principles, joint training and technical support to national partners. Such informal "protection networks" are essential for maintaining UNHCR's monitoring coverage in the region. In Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, the Office is engaged in efforts to include refugee concerns in the National Human Rights plans of each country.

UNHCR's pursuit of durable solutions for refugees in the region covers voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement, as appropriate. The agency's support for local integration, on behalf of the urban refugees who represent the majority of the active refugees, involves encouraging Governments to grant refugees access to permanent resident status and naturalization procedures, and promoting economic self-sufficiency through skills-training and income-generating projects. A pilot resettlement project will start shortly in Chile and Argentina on behalf of 120 refugees from the former Yugoslavia and Equatorial Guinea. A group of elderly European refugees continues to receive basic assistance from the Tolstoy Foundation in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. In Panama, UNHCR is helping the Government prepare a Contingency Plan to ensure provision of protection and assistance in the event of larger-scale arrivals of Colombian asylum-seekers. A small-scale community-support programme covering education and supplementary feeding and implemented by the Missionary Sisters began in August 1998 on behalf of several hundred Colombians and destitute local populations.

Special emphasis is placed on expanding public awareness to foster broad-based support for UNHCR's regional and world-wide objectives. In Argentina and Brazil, for example, the Office has managed to ensure regular inclusion of topical refugee issues in the national media. USA for UNHCR and other national support committees are under study as potential models for expanding UNHCR's donor base, especially in the Southern Cone.

Women and Children

Inclusion of a gender perspective in all programmes and activities is a key priority for the Office throughout the region. To this end, UNHCR provides specialized training to government, United Nations and NGO counterparts, based on a strategy developed by the Regional Gender Team for UNHCR in the Americas. A frequent problem detected in the region is that children of illegal migrants or unrecognized refugees run the risk of becoming stateless due to a series of administrative and/or legal barriers. In line with its responsibilities under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and in cooperation with UNICEF and local NGOs, UNHCR is exploring ways to solve this problem. Specific measures that benefit children include providing subsistence and educational support for some 24 unaccompanied Angolan children in Rio de Janeiro.


Despite the overall positive context in South America, achievement of UNHCR's objectives is affected by a variety of constraints. The most serious among these are underlying institutional fragility and recurrence of socio-economic tensions in key countries of the region. These constraints, coupled with national security concerns (related to terrorism, drug trafficking and irregular movements of migrants), strain countries' receptivity to asylum-seekers and compound procedural delays in resolving their legal status.

Budget US$

The budget does not include costs at Headquarters.

CountryGeneral ProgrammesSpecial ProgrammesTotal
Regional Projects3,487,500240,0003,727,500



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Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

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