December 16, 2017
Friday, December 23, 2016

Syrian refugees still no closer to Argentina

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By Mariano Melamed
For the Herald

President Mauricio Macri trumpeted the arrival of as many as 3,000 through a government-led programme, but signs of progress are few and far between


A couple of weeks ago, the Culture Ministry, the National Library and the local branch of the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) organised a fancy event, hosted in the gardens of the National Library in Palermo neighbourhood.

The excuse for the event was the inauguration of an exhibition of paintings and drawings about refugees, which were displayed over the walls in the Plaza del Lector in big plastic-laminated murals. Under the golden rays of sun on a delightful Buenos Aires afternoon, no more than 30 people were in attendance. Half of them were elegant-looking freshly-perfumed press attachés and PR ladies from the institutions. There were several cameramen and photographers from each institution’s PR department, plus one TV outlet whose reporter was introduced to the subject right on the spot. The focus turned to soap-opera actor Osvald Laport, who was about to read a poem as part of his role as UN Goodwill Ambassador, who was joined by a virtuoso violinist. A couple of bystanders stayed put to watch Mr Laport. All the rest were officials and their secretaries. Later came a panel made up of an official from the Culture Ministry, a delegate from the UNHCR, a journalist, another second-tier official from CONARE, the National Commission of Refugees (the original speaker had to cancel), one volunteer and... oh yes, one Syrian refugee named Fadi Ali.

The amount of Syrian refugees that have arrived since President Mauricio Macri announced Argentina would accept “3,000 Syrians” last June is insignificant and has always been low. He could have said 50,000 and it would be the same. Fadi Ali is quite happy though. He has nothing but gratitude toward the Argentine people. And, of course, there’s a sense of fairness about the government making it easier for the victims of the war to escape from their devastated or impoverished towns and cities — whether they’d be a couple of Syrians or a hundred men from Senegal, a group of displaced peoples from Colombia or a young Peruvian couple.

The contrast comes to the fore when the reality is compared against Macri’s words about Syrians — especially when John Kerry, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and even Ban Ki-moon in Buenos Aires and then at the UN General Assembly — and thus his remarks are replicated in pro-government media headlines: “Government to bring 3,000 Syrian refugees,” etc. And what would happen to the refugee number 3,001? Messing around with the numbers puts everything into place and when it’s about politics, talk is cheap. Because he had the shocking yet appealing announcement, but not a real plan.

Macri introduced a delicate issue onto the agenda as a move to strengthen Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra’s candidacy for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations, trying to show that his administration was completely blended with the Western world and that community while complying with its tradition of a nation that is ready to receive migrants with arms wide open. However, the amount of Syrian refugees who are benefitting from the “Syria programme” of humanitarian visas stays in the shadow. Let alone is it said that it’s actually a continuation of a programme from the Kirchnerite administration. In fact, the president should be congratulating and thanking the people who are actually in charge of accomplishing his errant announcement and he might be especially thankful to religion — almost all the NGOs working on the Syrian subject are aligned to Catholic, Adventist or evangelical churches. And 70 percent of the applications to become “sponsors,” demanding visas in the name of the refugees were made by religious entities.

The institutions and their congregations process the paperwork, purchase plane tickets, sort housing, food, investigate the possibility of employment and, in most cases, give pocket money to the newly arrived.             As they have always done. The government acts as an intermediary, compromising bureaucratic structures to link NGOs and Macri administration officials. Most of them have little expertise on the subject and are learning the process as they go. It’s easy to do business with somebody else’s money.

With his announcement, Macri not only forces himself to accomplish his vague as well as unaccountable goal, but also troubles many officials in several government departments that have had to improvise a plan and deal with a far distant war, third countries, little or no resources and people who are actually suffering and are expecting something on the other side of the world, like Fadi. Only he’s one of those who actually made it here.

Fadi — original from Latakia and married with two children — lives in Belgrano on the fifth floor of a Catholic school which operates as his sponsor.

“There are only a few NGOs really working, no more than five. They guarantee our settlement here. The Argentine state only delivered the visa,” he told the Herald. He then just had to get the commitment of a sponsor and — supposedly — pass through a security check.

Sponsors and plans

At the Library, a video was played before the panel started. Aleppo, the war, bloody children, refugee camps, the dead.

Tamara Lalli, an Argentine-Syrian volunteer, said to the small audience in plain language: “My country is not that thing that you just saw in the video. Global powers show concern about the consequences of war, they call for international aid, but still send weapons to Syria. Stop sending them and it will all conclude.”

Before Macri’s announcement, the Syria Programme required that only a relative should act as “sponsor party.” After that, changes were introduced and anyone could act as one. Regarding the government’s re-loaded initiative — with the same motherly wisdom — Lalli told the Herald: “The intention has to be followed with public policies because the actual situation with these migrants is going against not only the spirit of the Constitution but Macri’s words. He can’t say he’d bring 3,000 or 300 refugees and then complain that he has no funds for plane tickets. How did he think they would be coming? Everything was pure rhetorics, publicity for abroad.”

Lalli, who’s in charge of the aid programme of the Syrian Cultural Association, said “there must be a kind of masterplan in case things went wrong both for the immigrant or the sponsor. It has already happened that they just can’t get along, someone has to think about an alternative plan at.”

But there’s no plan B — there’s almost not even a plan A. JUCUM — the youth-wing of the evangelists — is running a programme called “A Church, a Family,” under which 40 Syrian families (around 200 people) will settle in Argentina. One of its mentors, Alejandro Rodríguez, has been praised by Pope Francis, who even appeared in a video asking for help in the effort to aid migrants.

Andrea dos Santos — a JUCUM missionary and Rodríguez’s assistant — confirmed that the evangelical community is ready to comply.

“We filed 25 applications to receive refugees last August, almost a hundred people. Of those 25 we have 20 hosts ready to receive them. Housing is being prepared in nine different Argentine provinces, Spanish lessons confirmed, pocket money available. We did the paperwork but the visas are still pending. All we’re asking is that the government issue visas without the current delays and get the tickets,” dos Santos said.

She says that final comment because she assures me that someone in Migration National Direction (DNM) told her that they’re getting the plane tickets. Vice-Director Julián Curi has stated that the government would get the plane tickets, but only through international cooperation with other institutions.

For Dos Santos, it’s not enough: “There’s no accountability of the arrivals. The most detailed figures I can tell you about are those of Refugio Humanitario, which hosts two families. For us it’s nothing but promises so far.”

No aid

Despite prior official announcements about foreign funding, there is no current aid arriving from other countries, says Federico Agusti, the president of CONARE.

“We’re working in deal with EU on technical aid and learning from the experience of Canada especially. We’re also trying to apply for some UN funding from emerging countries in a new scheme-basis, but there is no commitment from the government for plane tickets. Our commitment is to add up and strengthen the programme and go along with migrant families in this process,” he states.

Agusti made his point, but Dos Santos thinks she’s still right and that JUCUM is waiting for those promises to be achieved. On the other hand, Mariano Winograd, a representative from Refugio Humanitario, has had more luck and didn’t have to purchase plane tickets. Still he remarked that they were paid by the IOM — the UN’s migration agency — not by the government. He expects to receive 30 families overall over the next few months (two of them have already arrived earlier this week from Aleppo and are set to settle in Mendoza), although visas are yet to be approved. He feels now much more comfortable on the “Syria Desk” and praises the “dialogue” with current government officials.

“Unlike before, when there was no dialogue nor nothing at all,” he tells the Herald.

He himself has already acted as a sponsor for a handful of Syrians and is confident about the new Syria programme’s guidelines.

At ADRA, another NGO run by the Adventists which is funded in part by UNHCR, they accommodate and assist no more than 10 Syrians.

“Half of the people says one thing, the other half states otherwise. The law is applicable, the institutions work, but CONARE has no funding, public policies remain short. (There are) some issues about health and education that include the migrants, but they still lack the local culture and knowledge to make good use of them. There’s no straightforward funding for humanitarian aid,” says Jorge Fernández, technical advisor of the organisation.

The religious organisations play a key role and Pope Francis became the guide of the movement, and vice-versa. The province of San Luis is also taking on a prominent role. While a handful of people were at the Library event two weeks ago, at the same moment in Rome,  San Luis Governor Alberto Rodríguez Saá was attending a meeting in the Vatican with several mayors of European cities to draw up plans and think up ideas about how to deal the issue. Pope Francis didn’t show up, but he has made his point clear, right from the beginning of his papacy — his first visit abroad was to the island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean, where thousands of Syrians (and Libyans, and Africans) perished in their desperate bids to escape their countries.

Interestingly, the San Luis government, following Francis’ requests for action, decided to act alone, avoiding representatives from the national government. Last week, the province released its plan, which involves a new type of visa with a new kind of status and no quotas, according to an announcement.

For Senator Liliana Negre de Alonso (Peronist-San Luis), her province understands the issue to be one of human rights, not an act based in charity.

“The resources are guaranteed and are not attached to the (plans of the) national government. San Luis was the only province that took a step ahead when President Macri made the famous announcement of the 3,000. We can receive 200 or 300 refugees — we want them to be under the protection of the Constitution and to receive them as refugees, then they can become migrants and then citizens. In 100 days the province will be ready,” she told the Herald.

The destiny of other nationalities who look forward to settling in Argentina doesn’t seem an issue for anyone — as Fernández states: “Syrians are in the spotlight because they (pose) questions in Europe. Nobody cares about Africans or what is happening with other migrants in the developing countries.”       

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