Through thick and thin - the evolution of UNHCR's work in Argentina

News Stories, 3 April 2006

© UNHCR/P.Gutnisky
Refugees from different countries learning Spanish together in Argentina, 2004.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Apr 3 (UNHCR) Every morning when Ana Manusov used to leave her home for her job as a refugee worker at the Catholic Commission in Buenos Aires there was a man standing on the corner of her street waiting for her. "He wore a trench coat, was half bald and always had something in his hand. As soon as I started walking he would too. In the evenings, when I went back home, he was always at the corner again," she recalls.

One winter day, a clothes shop in front of the Commission was blown up, destroying the doors and windows of her office in the process. "That was, surely, to scare us off," she says.

This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Argentina when the country was run by a military dictatorship. Protecting and assisting refugees was dangerous work under a regime which treated with deep suspicion any activity which might be deemed political. The refugees whom UNHCR and its partners were helping back then were not fleeing war in distant continents as many of them do today, but military dictatorships in Argentina's neighbouring countries.

Over the four decades since UNHCR opened its office in Buenos Aires in 1965, the nature of its daily workload has changed dramatically. During the 1980s and 1990s as democratic regimes were gradually re-established across South America, Argentina became a place where people fleeing war and oppression in countries like Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Iraq, Cuba, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia and Chechnya would seek asylum.

Since 1985, Argentina has received 9,545 asylum requests from citizens of 89 countries, with 2,552 given official refugee status. These include people like Mohamed who at the young age of 13 fled his native Liberia and arrived as a stowaway on a ship, severely underweight and desperately ill from drinking too much sea water. And Angele, who arrived in Argentina with her little boy in 1993 having fled violence in what was then Zaire. And Mehmood, from Pakistan, who with the help of UNHCR micro-credit schemes, now runs a successful retail clothes business in the beach resort of Mar del Plata.

Today's asylum cases are dealt with by the national refugee committee (CEPARE) with which UNHCR closely works. But back in the 1970s, even though Argentina had ratified both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, no such committee or even refugee determination procedure existed. UNHCR alone had to provide protection by virtue of its mandate to South American refugees in Argentina.

Later, in 1973 UNHCR helped set up and finance the Co-ordinating Commission of Social Work (CCAS), which included the Catholic Commission. Working closely together, UNHCR and CCAS were able to offer protection and assistance to the thousands of refugees fleeing persecution by the military regimes in neighbouring countries including Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and most notoriously, Chile.

It was the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende's regime in 1973 which ushered in "the most difficult, intense and painful period," says Silvia Depianti, who worked for UNHCR in Buenos Aires at the time.

Although overall figures for these refugees are hard to come by, however, between 1974 and 1985 CAREF, an ecumenical organisation which worked closely with UNHCR helped 16,409 refugees in the country, 75 per cent of whom were Chilean.

Maria Ramos, was one such refugee. She came to Argentina over thirty years ago, and today she is still there. She and her husband used to work in a provisions commission under President Allende's government. "When food started getting scarce we went around the neighbourhoods distributing milk and bread. That's why we were so easily identifiable when the government fell," she explains. They fled to Argentina in 1975 and for the first two years they depended on assistance from the Catholic Commission. Later, Maria started working as a receptionist in a school where she still works today.

The military takeover in 1976 and changes in Argentina's immigration legislation provoked the resettlement of many of these South American refugees to other countries. According to Belela Herrera, who worked in UNHCR then, and is currently Uruguay's Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, close to 3,000 refugees were resettled in Switzerland, France, Holland, Austria, France and Canada and other countries willing to quickly process the cases for resettlement.

In the late 1970s, however, the military regime opened its doors to over a thousand south-east Asian refugees who had fled their countries to camps in Thailand. The families from Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos found themselves forced to grapple with a very different culture, climate and language in Argentina with practically no provision for the Buddhist majority to practise its religion. Despite attempts by UNHCR to bring in cultural specialists to help them settle into their new lives, around ten per cent of the families, overwhelmed by the problems they faced, opted to be resettled in North America and Europe. Others later returned home.

Some, however, remained. And in many cases, their children have gone to universities and now have successful jobs. Vanida Pomachan, a 27-year-old, whose family is from Laos, is a food engineer, working as a manager in one of the top multi-national food companies in Argentina. Articulate and charismatic, she frequently gives interviews to the press on her experience, and encourages refugees to face their challenges with determination and optimism.

By Maria Julia Contardi and Nazli Zaki in Buenos Aires, Argentina