IACHR

Press Release

Joint Statement of the IACHR and UNCHR on World Refugee Day: 10 Steps the States of the Americas Can Take to Respond to the Refugee Crisis

June 20, 2017

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María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
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Washington / Geneva — On the occasion of World Refugee Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognize the courage and sacrifice of the 65.6 million people worldwide who by the end of 2016 had been forced to flee their homes in search of protection. This is a record high and includes 40.3 million internally displaced people, 22.5 million refugees, and 2.8 million asylum seekers.

According to the UNHCR report Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016, in the countries of the Americas there were 7,584,816 internally displaced people at year-end 2016; 471,178 refugees; 221,516 people in refugee-like situations; 654,640 asylum seekers whose cases were pending, and 204 returned refugees. In the last five years, the number of asylum seekers has grown alarmingly in the Americas, by        782.11 percent, while there has been a decrease of nearly 9 percent in the number of people recognized as refugees. The IACHR and UNCHR express their concern over the wide disparity between the drastic increase in the number of asylum seekers and the decline in the number of people recognized as refugees.

One of the region’s main challenges is the forced migration of people from the Northern Triangle of Central America and from Mexico, due primarily to the violence caused by organized crime. There has been a drastic increase of 3,702 percent in the number of asylum seekers and 149 percent in the number of refugees from the Northern Triangle, as well as an increase of 1,684 percent in the number of asylum seekers and 23 percent in the number of refugees from Mexico. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has caused an alarming increase of 8,828 percent in the number of asylum seekers while the number of refugees has decreased by 8 percent. Another challenge in the region is forced displacement caused mainly by natural disasters in Haiti.

Thinking back to the day she had to flee El Salvador because of threats from gangs, María said, “I really couldn’t sleep that night. My sisters couldn’t come with us, and I was afraid something would happen to them. My stomach hurt from hunger, and the floor was so hard I couldn’t fall sleep. My body was exhausted, but my mind was wide awake. I didn’t know where I was, but eventually I slept a little because my mother told me everything was going to be all right.” María hopes to go back to school now that she is a refugee and out of danger. For her part, remembering the day she applied for asylum, Priscila said, “I was lost and afraid. I didn’t know anyone, and I felt like a freak. I quickly signed all the papers so we could go off and cry without anyone seeing us…. I had to make the painful decision to leave everything behind, my family and friends, my house, my business, and leave Honduras for good, spending all the money I had, because I knew we only had days, or hours, before the gang would come for my daughter. They had chosen her to be the girlfriend of one of the gang members.”

In light of this situation, the IACHR and UNCHR observe that the measures the States have taken are insufficient to respond to the refugee crisis the region is experiencing. It is necessary to take concrete steps to address the situation, measures that will guarantee protection for everyone who needs it. In this regard, the IACHR and UNHCR urge the States of the region to implement the following measures, in a framework of cooperation and shared responsibility:

  1. Address and prevent the causes that lead to internal displacement and forced migration across borders.
  2. Ratify the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, and ensure that national and regional policies, laws, and practices comply with the norms and standards of international human rights law and international refugee law.
  3. Establish fair and effective procedures at the national level for determination of refugee status, complementary protection, and statelessness.
  4. Guarantee entry into the country of people seeking international protection; the right to seek and receive asylum; and the principle of non-refoulement, including a prohibition on turning people back at the border.
  5. Implement mechanisms that enable the identification of people who need international protection and those who may be in a vulnerable situation or have special protection needs.
  6. Properly develop and coordinate national, regional, and international mechanisms to handle large movements of refugees and migrants.
  7. Increase refugee resettlement programs and furnish safe, regular, and orderly means for migration, such as humanitarian visa programs, complementary protection, family reunification, student scholarships, work visas, and private sponsorship programs, among others.
  8. Strengthen technical and financial assistance to the main countries that receive migrants.
  9. Ensure that immigration detention of asylum seekers or others who need international protection is always a measure of last resort, admissible only when it is reasonable, necessary, and proportionate, decided on a case-by-case basis, and used for the shortest time possible. Give priority consideration to the use of alternatives to detention. Ensure that children and their parents are not placed in immigration detention as a precautionary measure in proceedings to determine refugee status or in immigration proceedings. As a general rule, the detention of asylum seekers and refugees for immigration reasons is not justified under international law and is considered an obstacle to the exercise of the right to seek and receive asylum.
  10. Implement measures to promote social integration and the resilience of refugees, particularly by guaranteeing their economic, social, and cultural rights. To promote social integration of refugees, States should take affirmative steps such as educational and awareness campaigns aimed at promoting multicultural societies and countering discrimination and xenophobia.

IACHR Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, said, “We are witnessing a time in modern history when we have record-breaking numbers of refugees, internally displaced people, and others who have been forced to flee their homes. The Americas is also experiencing its refugee crises, crises which to a large extent are being made invisible or are being addressed from the standpoint of containing migration and reducing international protection. This should force us to rethink the measures that have been implemented in the region for refugees. While the region has a long tradition of asylum, the magnitude of the numbers today requires that we not stand by and watch how people risk everything to survive only to end up being denied the protection to which they are entitled. World Refugee Day serves as a reminder of the humanitarian obligation we have as States, and it is a call to action.”

For her part, Renata Dubini, Director of the UNHCR Americas Bureau, stated, “It is important for us to remember that when we talk about refugees we are talking about people who have had to leave their homes or countries because of violence, persecution, and human rights violations. We see in the region that a great many cases of asylum seekers and refugees involve people who were already in vulnerable situations, such as children and adolescents; women; indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex persons; and people living in poverty.” She added, “The States of the region have recognized the crisis situation our region is undergoing and have made a commitment to implement specific measures to address it. Along these lines, this year will see the presentation of the first triennial progress report for the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action and the follow-up process to the 2016 San Jose Action Statement, as well as the approval of a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018. We hope that these efforts will be reflected in a better quality of life for refugees.”

IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão said, “To respond effectively to the refugee crisis we are experiencing in the region, we need innovative regional policies based on cooperation and shared responsibility of the States. These should be focused on the protection of refugees, first of all, and should include the participation and leadership of the States, civil society organizations, academia, the media, the private sector, and refugees themselves and, most importantly, political will. The refugee crises we are seeing are not simply about numbers, but are primarily crises involving lack of solidarity and political will.” He added, “The rate of new forced displacement in 2016 was 20 people per minute, which means 28,300 people per day. It is urgent that we develop a comprehensive regional response for the protection of refugees. Every minute that goes by means lives we did not save.”

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and defense of human rights in the region, and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR) is the United Nations agency charged with protecting refugees and people displaced by persecution or conflicts, and promoting lasting solutions to their situation. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, it has more than 250 offices around the world, in 125 countries. In recognition of its efforts, the UN Refugee Agency received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981, and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1991.

No. 080/17