Chile passes landmark domestic legislation on refugees

News Stories, 11 March 2010

© UNHCR/D.Guerrero
Former President Michelle Bachelet, who presented the refugee law last year, welcomes Palestinian refugees to Chile.

SANTIAGO, Chile, March 11 (UNHCR) Chile's Senate has adopted a refugee law that will enhance South America's growing reputation as a safe haven for people forced to flee their home countries because of violence or persecution.

The Law for the Protection of Refugees, passed on Tuesday by the upper house of Congress, establishes a legal framework for the protection of refugees in Chile and incorporates this country's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The Chamber of Deputies approved the law earlier.

Among other things, the legislation includes universal and regional definitions of refugees; sets out guarantees and obligations for refugees; and regularizes procedures and guidelines for determining refugee status. It must now be signed by the president before entering into force.

"This shows that refugee issues are of interest to all political sectors," said Fabio Varoli, UNHCR's liaison officer in Chile. "We appreciate that the debate and approval was so fast."

The refugee bill was presented in April 2009 by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who noted that democratic governments in her country had provided protection to thousands of refugees, while adding that "when the rule of law was ignored, several thousand Chileans received protection [overseas]." Chile hosts almost 2,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from more than 30 countries.

Passage of the law comes as the popular Bachelet leaves office to be replaced by Sebastian Pinera and at a time when the nation's attention remains focused on the response to a massive earthquake on February 27 that left several hundred people dead.

Passage of a refugee law in Chile adds to South America's renewed reputation as a haven for people forced to flee their homelands. Although Colombia continues to face problems of internal displacement, many countries are welcoming refugees from around the world.

In 1999, Chile became the first South American country to launch a resettlement programme in cooperation with UNHCR. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have since initiated similar programmes and Paraguay will soon follow suit.

This spirit of concern for the forcibly displaced is enshrined in the Mexico Plan of Action, which was adopted by 20 countries in 2004 to safeguard refugees in Latin America and to find durable solutions for them. The plan called among other things for the strengthening of legislative protection for refugees.

Almost every country in the region has national structures, legislation and procedures for the determination of refugee status. Most have signed the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

Carolina Podestá in Buenos Aires, Argentina contributed to this story