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Tackling new refugee challenges 20 years after Cartagena

Tackling new refugee challenges 20 years after Cartagena

Twenty years ago, a group of Latin American countries adopted the Cartagena Declaration to address the problems of uprooted people caught in armed conflicts and human rights abuses in the region. Today, these countries are meeting again to confront new refugee challenges sparked by the war on terrorism and tightening access to asylum.
13 August 2004
A child guides a blind man returning home under a repatriation programme for Guatemalan refugees in Mexico.

SAN JOSÉ, Aug. 13 (UNHCR) - Twenty years after the Cartagena Declaration that addressed the needs of victims of armed conflicts and human rights abuses in Latin America, the UN refugee agency has begun consultations to discuss new refugee challenges sparked by the war on terrorism.

The first of three regional consultation meetings, prior to the celebration of the adoption of this important regional instrument, started in San José, Costa Rica on Thursday. Representatives of governments and civil society from Mexico, Cuba and the Central American countries are attending the two-day event that will focus on the situation of refugees in the region, state practices in terms of protection and identification of durable solutions.

"Costa Rica is honoured to host this first regional consultation meeting organized within the frame of the celebration activities of the 20th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration," said Marco Vinicio Vargas, the Costa Rican vice minister of foreign affairs, during the inauguration of the event last Thursday.

The Cartagena Declaration is considered the main contribution of the Americas to the international refugee protection framework. Expanding on the classical refugee definition of a person fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution, the declaration included "generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."

Out of the countries that participated in this first regional meeting, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have incorporated this extended definition in their national legislations. Nicaragua has proposed it in the draft of a new legislation.

The Declaration, adopted in the Colombian city of Cartagena on Nov. 22, 1984, was conceived to face the legal and humanitarian problems that affected thousands of Central American refugees during the decade of the eighties. The commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration takes place amid growing concern on national security issues, the war against terrorism, the increase of migratory controls that restrict the access of persons in search of protection and the growth of the phenomenon of traffic of migrants and the trafficking in persons.

"We are in front of a new international scenario, where the rearrangement of the international forces has had an impact on every aspect of the international relations and where the interpretation and application of the international refugee law have not been excluded," said UNHCR's regional representative Mérida Morales-O'Donnell.

She pointed out two important events that have changed the international context since the adoption of the Declaration: the end of the Cold War and the growth of disorganized migration fluxes.

"The end of the Cold War changed the way the problem of refugees and the role of the humanitarian assistance in the new conflicts are perceived and treated, whilst the growth of the disorganized migration fluxes at the world level has included a great deal of undocumented migrants, and among them, asylum seekers who try, by all means, to reach the territory of States that in many situations have established strict migratory controls," she said.

The next two regional meetings will take place in Brazil and Colombia, prior to a final meeting in Mexico City in November. Supporting the meetings are the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights and the Norwegian Refugee Council.