Media Backgrounder: Latin America - visionary framework for refugee protection

As UNHCR calls for states, municipal authorities and mayors, humanitarian agencies and civil society to meet the challenge of growing refugee populations in towns and cities worldwide, Latin America's Plan of Action stands out as a visionary, strategic model for a better future.

With as many as 50 per cent of the 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR's mandate now living in cities and towns, UNHCR's new policy challenges states, municipal authorities, communities, humanitarian agencies and civil society to recognize this new reality - and work together to respond. "The plight of refugees, IDPs [internally displaced people] and other persons of concern can no longer be treated as simply a UNHCR issue or a humanitarian issue," says UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

Framing what will be a global debate on this issue, Guterres adds, "We should remember that refugees' human rights travel with them. They are entitled to the same protection and services in cities and towns that they have received in camps."

Protecting refugees in towns and cities remains the primary responsibility of national governments and local authorities, states the policy, and calls for a spirit of increased solidarity and shared responsibility.

Key role of mayors and municipal authorities

The challenge looks very different from region to region. Middle Eastern countries have responded with generosity towards Iraqi refugees. Many Latin American cities extend support to refugees across borders and within cities. Not all regions are as hospitable however.

"While the issue is global, conditions vary greatly from region to region and so much depends on a local response. That's why, as well as working at government level, we are highlighting the roles of mayors and municipal authorities as being pivotal. We look to them in particular to help build understanding and cooperation between refugees and the local population on the ground. They can make a big difference," says Guterres.

Latin America - strong tradition of protecting refugees in urban settings

Living up to that responsibility, 20 countries* across the Latin America region agreed in 2004 to come together under the Mexico Plan of Action, a visionary framework that is built on policies of encouraging integration, self reliance and resettlement - durable solutions to getting refugees' lives back on track.

Latin America has a strong tradition of protecting refugees in urban settings. Set against the 40-year conflict in Colombia, which displaced more than three million people inside and outside the country - Bogota alone has absorbed around half-a-million displaced people - the Plan built on this tradition and set out concrete steps to strengthen asylum systems and protection capabilities for governments and NGOs.

Life remains challenging for many

While there is political goodwill at high level across the region, the daily reality for many refugees and displaced people in Latin America today remains grim. About 80 per cent of displaced people head for towns and cities that offer safety - especially prized for those who may have seen loved ones killed. But the places they can afford to live in are often the poorest barrios - a landslide-prone cliff or a flood-plagued beachfront. Rural people and farmers, especially, find it a challenge to make a living in a town or city. Instead of growing plantains or catching fish, they now have to earn money by other means to feed their families. With no assets, and without basic skills and the knowledge required to survive daily life in cities, they desperately need help. Secure housing and the supportive social networks they may have previously known will be missing. They won't have basic identity documents which could help get them food rations, schooling and health care.

Host towns and cities are adversely impacted. More pressure on infrastructure and environment, on housing and social services in communities already struggling can create tensions between local and refugee populations - and, in worst cases, can fuel xenophobia. In Latin America, towns and cities in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela bore particularly heavy refugee influxes as a result of the Colombian conflict.

Invisible, and on the margins of society, refugees are soon exposed to risk - with women, children and the ageing particularly so. Violence and discrimination figure among many dangers refugees can face as they attempt to gain a foothold in poor communities already under strain. They also often become targets for organized crime.

The registration process - a foundation for protection

In making refugees visible - in transforming a virtual "nobody" into someone with status - the registration process is key, and an important step on the path to protection. Where governments are unable to do so, UNHCR issues its own identity and status documents to refugees, and seeks to ensure these are recognized by the authorities. In Latin America, for example, UNHCR has worked closely with the Colombian government in issuing more than three million identity cards to displaced nationals. In towns and cities, refugees inevitably come into contact with police and security personnel, with local government officials, workplace and marketplace inspectors. In these situations, such identity cards are proving vital, helping secure protection, health care, schooling, and freedom of movement.

Hope for the future - region-wide solidarity and partnership in action

The Mexico Plan of Action helps refugees integrate within cities, become more self reliant, and stimulates social and economic development in border areas. Importantly, the Plan is designed to benefit local populations as well as refugees. It features close collaboration between UNHCR, national governments, NGOs and - key players - mayors and municipal authorities. The Plan also takes a strategic, region-wide approach to resettling refugees, easing pressure on those countries receiving large numbers of refugees.

While challenges remain - implementation of programmes has been uneven, especially in the context of the Colombian conflict where resources are lacking - there has been good progress towards durable solutions enabling people to reshape their lives. Moves forward include legislation, refugee status determination, resettlement, capacity-building, practices that allow refugees to apply for a new nationality, and improved safety in border areas. Argentina has adopted new asylum legislation, and border authorities in various countries have undertaken training on refugee protection. Work with Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama and Uruguay continues on new asylum legislation and on refugee status determination.

Supporting integration and self-reliance in the city

The Cities of Solidarity programme helps refugees integrate into local communities in towns and cities through increased self-reliance. Since host communities are often poor and already under strain, the programme takes this on-board, sensitive to the needs of the whole community. In Costa Rica, micro-credit and job placement initiatives are working well. In Ecuador, UNHCR is supporting the development of areas hosting refugees, while in Brazil the organization partners with a specialist financial institution in providing loans to both refugees and the local population. In Colombia, UNHCR works closely with town and city authorities to guarantee access to housing, education, health care and income generation projects - and to ensure property rights are respected. Other initiatives include the roll-out of vocational training and set-up of community-based childcare centres.

Improving infrastructure and opportunity on the borders

The Borders of Solidarity programme has put in place measures that deal with the massive influx of those fleeing the 40-year conflict in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians moved into border areas across Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, creating immediate strains. States had no way of knowing how many displaced people were on their territory - the refugees were invisible, vulnerable and marginalized. These countries have cooperated with UNHCR to help protect them while addressing the needs of poor border communities, with a view to a longer-term integration. Work has focused on improvement of basic infrastructure and community services - for example, improved water supply and repair of school buildings and health centres. Schemes to generate employment have also been set up. In parallel, UNHCR has worked to profile the refugee population, and has helped implement anti-discrimination public awareness programmes for local communities.

Resettlement - putting people's lives back on track in new settings

Conceived as a strategic means of easing pressure on those countries taking the brunt of large-scale population movements, the Solidarity Resettlement programme has made good progress, with Argentina, Brazil and Chile now hosting refugees resettled from other countries in Latin America. It is a real model of how effectively international solidarity and responsibility-sharing can help put in place durable and satisfactory solutions for those whose lives have been shattered. Refugees arriving in their new home country can benefit from language classes, help with childcare and a range of other services, including help finding work.

Argentina has welcomed Colombian refugees from Ecuador and Costa Rica. Chile hosts resettled refugees not only from Colombia but also from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Cuba. Brazil has welcomed Colombian refugees living in Ecuador and Costa Rica - including families headed by women - and now hosts more than 3,000 refugees from 50 different countries, including Palestinians and over 1,600 from Angola.

* Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela