Press Release

On World Refugee Day, IACHR Asks States in the Region to Take Action and Protect the Human Rights of Refugees

June 21, 2019

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Washington, D.C. – On World Refugee Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) acknowledges important actions taken by States in the Organization of American States (OAS) to address the multiple dynamics of forced displacement in the region. However, the IACHR deems it necessary to remind States that hundreds of thousands of people continue to require international protection and should therefore be recognized as refugees. The rights of those persons to non-refoulement, supplementary protection and any other international protection responses should be enforced, as should their human rights.

In a context where forced displacement continues to rise dramatically on a global scale, the report Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2018 of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—published yesterday—shows that, by the end of 2018, in the Americas, there were 1,026,504 asylum seekers whose formal requests were awaiting answers, along with 232,767 refugees, 58,834 people in refugee-like situations, 23,900 returned refugees, and 8,061,972 internally displaced persons.

Over the past three years, the number of asylum seekers has risen at an alarming rate in the Americas, 219%, while the number of people who have been recognized as refugees has only increased by 16% over the same period. The IACHR expresses its concern about the disparity between the dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers and the limited increase in the number of people recognized as refugees.

According to figures issued by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), by the beginning of June 2019, the number of Venezuelan nationals who had left their country had reached 4 million, and 3.2 million of those were living in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is the largest migrant and refugee crisis in the recent history of the Americas. The number of Venezuelan asylum seekers went from 45,088 at the end of 2016 to 464,229 at the end of 2018, a 930% rise.

In Central America, various forms of violence, poverty, natural disasters and climate change have been, along with the lack of legal certainty concerning land tenure, some of the main causes of the forced displacement—whether internal or international—of hundreds of thousands of people from countries in the so-called Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), who last year regained visibility by moving in “migrant caravans.” Those problems have caused an alarming increase—from 143,597 asylum seekers and 42,675 refugees at the end of 2016 to 282,677 asylum seekers and 70,556 refugees by the end of 2018, equivalent to a 97% hike in the number of asylum seekers and a 65% rise in the number of refugees. Mexico has also experienced significant increases—from 64,269 asylum seekers and 10,385 refugees at the end of 2016 to 89,796 asylum seekers and 12,870 refugees by the end of 2018, which amounts to a 40% rise in the number of asylum seekers and a 24% rise in the number of refugees.

The State repression in Nicaragua that started in April 2019 forced more than 62,000 people to flee the country in one year. At the end of 2016, there were 2,126 Nicaraguan asylum seekers and 1,419 Nicaraguan refugees around the world. By the end of 2018, those figures had risen to 32,269 asylum seekers and 1,673 refugees, equivalent to a 1,418% increase in the number of asylum seekers and a 18% rise in the number of refugees.

The UNHCR report Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2018 also shows that forced internal displacement was still on the rise in Colombia—it went from 7,410,816 at the end of 2016 to 7,816,472 by the end of 2018, which amounts to a 5% increase.

In recent years, the IACHR has observed with concern that, faced with an increase in migration movements around the region, some States have toughened their rhetoric and actions regarding migrants and refugees, and also regarding defenders of the human rights of those people and anyone who provides humanitarian assistance along migration routes and in border areas. Another concerning situation involves demands for valid documents—including passports, records of past criminal activity and apostilles—which are difficult to obtain for many vulnerable and unsafe persons who need international protection.

In recent months, the IACHR has observed a rise in actions approaching criminalization. In particular, such actions have involved detaining and deporting persons who need international protection and signing bilateral agreements so that asylum seekers await the resolution of their cases in places where their lives and integrity may be at risk, as well as signing safe third country agreements with countries that are not safe enough. All those measures are aimed at discouraging persons who are at risk from searching international protection. These actions to externalize migration control join other measures that were already being implemented in terms of border securitization and militarization.

In this context, the IACHR reminds States that migrating is not a crime and that many people engaged in migration movements need international protection, while many others are vulnerable and require special protection. The IACHR further urges the authorities in countries of transit and destination to take urgent action so that people who assist migrants in transit and refugees can do their work without fear and without being criminalized for their efforts. The IACHR also calls on States in the region to not cut back, suspend or eliminate international assistance funds for countries who need them. Instead, States should increase the resources they devote to addressing the structural causes of forced migration, as well as providing asylum and ensuring non-refoulement for people whose lives and integrity are at risk.

“The situation of refugees requires a regional and international response based on enforcing human rights, and on a shared responsibility to grant protection to people who need it,” said IACHR President Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño. “According to the figures issued by the UNHCR, 37,000 people suffer new forced displacements per day on a global scale. A comprehensive response from the international community is urgently needed. Every day that goes by, there are lives that we fail to save. At the IACHR, we also acknowledge the huge efforts that civil society organizations, international organizations, human rights defenders and academics make every day to protect refugees and displaced persons. States and all relevant actors must join forces to promote solidarity and protection for refugees,” said Commissioner Arosemena de Troitiño.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented situation in the region, with the highest number of refugees in history, with internally displaced persons and with other people who need international protection and are forced to flee to seek safety and protection outside their countries,” said Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants. “National discourse that criminalizes migration and reduces the protection that States need to grant are increasingly common in the Americas. That runs against the urgent need for solutions based on human rights called for by the crisis around asylum seekers and refugees, so those vulnerable groups are guaranteed protection in the region,” Commissioner Vargas Silva warned.

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 to defend 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.

No. 155/19