Action Plan based on solidarity offers the best guarantee to protect refugees in Latin America

Almost a year after its adoption, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has given an upbeat account of the progress made so far under the Mexico Plan of Action, which sets out concrete steps to address the main challenges to refugee and IDP protection in Latin America.

The Mexico Plan of Action aims to further the development of asylum systems and protection capacity of governments and NGOs, for the benefit of people like these Colombian refugee children wating for their parents outside a UNHCR office in Ecuador.   © UNHCR/B.Heger

GENEVA, October 6 (UNHCR) - Reviewing progress in the implementation of a landmark action plan to strengthen refugee protection in Latin America, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said on Wednesday that the Mexico Plan of Action, endorsed last November by twenty Latin American countries, was the most sophisticated operational instrument to protect and assist refugees in the world.

"The spirit of solidarity between neighbours is the best guarantee for refugees," Guterres told a meeting of ambassadors and government delegates at the UN European Headquarters in Geneva.

Speaking at a special session during the refugee agency's annual Executive Committee meeting, the High Commissioner said that the Mexico Plan of Action charts a way forward as the humanitarian community considers how to meet the needs of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

"The plan makes a crucial link between internally displaced people and refugees - protection and durable solutions for one group must include the other - and elaborates practical methods to assist the internally displaced. This must happen within the UN collaborative approach and will require commitment, clear thinking, and additional funding," he explained.

Set against the background of the 40-year-old conflict in Colombia, which has led to the forced displacement of over 3 million men, women and children both inside and outside the country's borders, the adoption of the Mexico Plan of Action was a genuine milestone. More than a simple declaration of good intentions, the Plan sets out concrete steps to address the main challenges to refugee and IDP protection in Latin America. In particular, the action-oriented plan aims to further the development of asylum systems and protection capacity of governments and non-governmental organisations.

"The Mexico Plan of Action focuses on solidarity and on partnership," explained Philippe Lavanchy, Director of UNHCR's Bureau for the Americas, "only by working together can we hope to better protect refugees and displaced people while looking for solutions to their plight."

The Plan of Action proposes concrete actions that include working to achieve self-sufficiency and local integration in the cities (the "Cities of solidarity" programme), stimulating social and economic development in border areas to benefit refugees and the local population (the "Borders of solidarity" programme), and establishing a programme of resettlement in Latin America as a way to ease pressure on those countries receiving large numbers of refugees (the "Resettlement in solidarity" programme).

The Plan, which is also designed to address the humanitarian needs of people fleeing violence in Colombia, includes a comprehensive programme to assess the needs of refugees and of local host communities, especially in border areas of neighbouring countries, allowing for complementary humanitarian and development-oriented activities.

Since the Mexico Plan of Action was signed in November 2004, there has been considerable progress in some areas such as legislation, refugee status determination, resettlement, capacity-building and protection in border areas. Equally encouraging are the recent examples of regional cooperation to strengthen national eligibility practices.

However, important challenges remain. The implementation of some programmes has been uneven as a result of the practical difficulties to provide effective protection in some situations, notably in the context of the Colombian conflict, and insufficient resources available.

Among the specific achievements of the Plan of Action are the adoption of new asylum legislation in Argentina and the expansion of refugee protection learning programmes for border authorities in various countries. Discussions continued on the contents of new draft legislation on asylum and on refugee status determination procedures with the authorities of Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama and Uruguay.

At the same time, there has been significant progress in the implementation of the resettlement component of the Mexico Plan of Action. Argentina signed a resettlement agreement with UNHCR in June 2005 and is taking the necessary measures to welcome some 40 Colombian refugees currently in Ecuador and Costa Rica before the end of the year. Chile hosts some 100 resettled refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Cuba and Colombia. In Brazil, the emerging resettlement programme now involves some 180 refugees and includes an emergency procedure that this year benefited 26 people, the majority of whom were women at risk. Resettlement solutions were also found for 19 mandate refugees in Cuba.

The Plan's durable-solutions component also foresees the enhancement of local integration and the promotion of refugee self-reliance in both urban centres and border areas affected by the Colombian conflict.

In Costa Rica, micro-credit and job placement initiatives have produced measurable results for the first time since this programme started in late 2003. In Ecuador, UNHCR is promoting development support for refugee-hosting areas. In Brazil, the UN refugee agency signed an agreement with a financial institution specialized in the provision of credit to the poorest segments of the population to ensure access to credit for production, housing and urgent needs to both refugees and the local population in areas where there are a lot of refugees. In Colombia, UNHCR continued to work closely with authorities in urban areas to guarantee IDPs' access to housing, education, health care and income generation projects and to ensure their property rights are protected.

The Mexico Plan of Action has received the support of the international community from the very beginning. In this context, the delegate for the Netherlands announced yesterday that her government would donate €3 million for Colombian refugees and displaced persons, including 1 million euros for UNHCR programmes.