Latin American countries plot way forward for resettlement
QUITO, Ecuador, Feb. 7 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's newly-appointed Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, praised Ecuador for its commitment to refugee protection at a landmark meeting on resettlement in Quito last week. The two-day meeting, organised by UNHCR's Bureau for the Americas, brought together representatives from eight Latin American countries as well as from Norway, Canada, the United States and Sweden. It provided a platform for Latin American countries that are launching resettlement programmes to exchange ideas among themselves and with countries that have a longer experience of resettlement.
"The meeting succeeded in strengthening regional cooperation and in starting a very positive north-south dialogue on the issue of resettlement," Feller said. "Its impact is likely to be felt well beyond Latin America because what is being created here is a model for a successful regional resettlement programme that can serve as an impetus for other regions."
Resettlement - the granting of permanent residence in a country other than the one where a refugee first took asylum - is one of the three main solutions to refugee problems. The other two solutions, voluntary repatriation to the country of origin and local integration in the country of first asylum, are not always possible, and resettlement can be especially useful when dealing with long-term, protracted refugee situations. It is also a way of helping countries bordering conflict areas, which often receive very large numbers of refugees, by sharing some of the responsibility for protecting refugees.
In Latin America, large numbers of Colombians fleeing conflict in their homeland have taken refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela over the years. In Ecuador alone there are some 250,000 Colombians of concern to UNHCR. In a spirit of regional solidarity, other Latin American states have set up a regional resettlement programme and offered to provide a home for some of the refugees living in Colombia's neighbouring countries. Brazil, Chile and Argentina led the way last year in offering resettlement to some 250 Colombian refugees. Other countries have expressed their interest and are expected to join the regional resettlement programme soon.
This initiative is one of the cornerstones of the Mexico Plan of Action, a continental strategy adopted in 2004 by 20 Latin American countries to give new impetus to refugee protection in the region. The Quito meeting provided an opportunity to review what has been achieved since the signing of the Plan, and to encourage more countries to adopt concrete measures for implementing the strategy.
"The basis of this programme is international solidarity, particularly solidarity with the countries most affected by the Colombian crisis," said Philippe Lavanchy, Director of UNHCR's bureau for the Americas. "While the focus is very much on regional solidarity, the help of states outside the region remains crucial and I am grateful for the presence at the meeting of countries outside the region that came to share their expertise in resettlement issues."
Traditionally, only a few countries in the world have run large resettlement programmes. In 2004, for example, a total of 42,000 refugees were resettled with UNHCR's help to "traditional" resettlement countries of Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark), as well as New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland and Ireland.
Representatives from Norway, Canada, the United States and Sweden present at the Quito meeting highlighted the positive contributions resettled refugees have made in their respective countries over the years. They stressed that resettlement is only the beginning of a process that is meant to end with integration and shared many examples of how resettled refugees have become an integral part of the social fabric of their countries. They also offered practical suggestions to help new resettlement countries, notably by setting up a system of "twinning agreements" under which expertise will be shared, ideas exchanged and coordination mechanisms developed.
All participants were in agreement that integration is key to the long-term success of resettlement. Brazil, Chile and Argentina described some of the difficulties and challenges they faced during the first year of the programme, often linked to limited resources but also to refugees' expectations. All stressed the importance of integrating the efforts of governments and civil society in reception countries in order to build mechanisms to help resettled refugees integrate.
Participants also outlined a strategy for countries to follow-up on the agreements reached at the meeting in order to ensure that the spirit of collaboration achieved during their discussions is translated into concrete measures to strengthen resettlement in the region.
By Xavier Orellana in Quito, Ecuador