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Latin America: regional response needed to address the needs of Haitian migrants

News and Press Release
Originally published

"As the flow of Haitians towards South America increases, so do the activities of trafficking and smuggling networks. These criminal activities lure Haitians to Ecuador and Chile, on false promises of being able to study, work, and even travel to the US and French Guiana", explained Mr Louidor.

Quito, 14 April 2011 – Jesuit Refugee Service has issued an appeal urging states in the region to protect Haitian victims of smuggling and trafficking networks in Latin America. In 2009, there were approximately 75,000 Haitians living in South America in 2009; but since then this number has increased significantly particularly to Ecuador and Chile.

"Over the last three years or so, South America has become a new migration pole for Haitians", JRS Latin America and Caribbean Advocacy Coordinator for Haiti, Wooldy Edson Louidor, said during a press conference in Quito on 8 April.

JRS Latin America and Caribbean regional office raised a number of concerns regarding the recent flow of Haitian migrants. Foremost, it is concerned by the worsening humanitarian situation in Haiti which has forced many to migrate, and the inability of the Haitian government and the international community to respond to the needs of this population.

During the press conference, the Jesuit Refugee Service condemned these complex trafficking and smuggling networks operating in Haiti, and places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and various other South American countries: Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and French Guiana.

In addition, the slow pace of the reconstruction of post-earthquake Haiti has helped strengthen smuggling and trafficking networks in the country, and the consequent tightening of migration policies has forced Haitians into even more difficult and vulnerable circumstances.

JRS urged Latin American states to grant Haitian migrants visas for humanitarian reasons, particularly victims of criminal networks, forced to emigrate due to the worsening crisis caused by the 12-January-2010 earthquake.

Moreover, JRS called for the establishment of a regional reception policy for this population, and a regional network to combat trafficking and smuggling networks, differentiating between perpetrators and victims, punishing the former and protecting the latter.

During the press conference, JRS highlighted the increasing number of Haitians transiting through Ecuador and Chile.

According to statistics provided by immigration police services, in 2009, 1,258 Haitians arrived in Ecuador, in 2010 a further 1,867 and 1,112 during the first months of 2011. In addition, the national tourism office in Chile reported that 477 Haitians entered into the country in 2009, 820 in 2010, and 125 in January of this year.

However, despite the numbers of Haitians arriving into Ecuador and Chile most do not remain, but rather try to move to Brazil, French Guiana, and even the US.

Shrinking protection space

JRS has identified various smuggling networks which bring migrants to Ecuador via the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

"As the flow of Haitians towards South America increases, so do the activities of trafficking and smuggling networks. These criminal activities lure Haitians to Ecuador and Chile, on false promises of being able to study, work, and even travel to the US and French Guiana", explained Mr Louidor.

Upon arrival in Ecuador, many migrants are forced to pay the smugglers a second time to bring them to French Guiana and Brazil, among other countries.

In response to the increasing arrival, some states, such as French Guiana and Brazil, have reinforced security on, in places effectively closing, their borders to prevent the arrival of Haitians.

According to the Brazilian authorities, Haitians are not entitled to refugee status – granted only to persons fleeing persecution, religious discrimination and other circumstances outlined in national legislation – not to those fleeing poverty and the consequences of the natural disaster.

Since 15 February this year, the Brazilian federal government has suspended the emission of refugee status to Haitians. Between 300 and 400 Haitians are currently in detention, after being prevented from crossing the border into French Guiana. As many as 2,000 Haitians are believed to have crossed the Amazon-state border into Brazil.

A month ago, Brazil also closed its border with Peru, principally in Acre state near Tabatinga, the main point of entry into the Brazilian Amazon. The Haitian migrants are still unable get into Brazil and remain trapped in the border area of Peru.

For instance, on 1 April, the provincial mayor of the Peruvian region of Tahuamani, Celso Curi Paucarmaita stated that more than 100 Haitians have been in the Iñapari jungle near the Brazilian border for one month; and their money and food supply is slowly diminishing.

Fr Fernando Ponce SJ, JRS Ecuador Director, noted that in March 2009 JRS began working with some 150 Haitians living in the north of Quito. Following the earthquake in Haiti this figure has increased substantially. According to JRS, this population faces two principal difficulties: the lack of documentation and the lack of work.

Recently a number of Haitian students arrived in Ecuador, many of whom have been tricked with false offers, added Fr Ponce SJ.

"The numbers are small, but the situation is worrisome. The Ecuadorian government has stated they will not deport the migrants, but regularisation of their legal statuses has been made more difficult by recent legislation on migration", he said.

"The other issues which make Haitians' integration into society and the labour market extremely difficult is their lack of knowledge of the language and the huge absence of support networks and services, which could provide them with the necessary tools and opportunities to integrate into their new host societies."

In response, JRS has opened a multipurpose centre, offering Spanish language classes, legal assistance, and education for migrant children. Capacity building training is also provided to migrant NGOs, where events and meetings are used to send a clear message that Ecuador cannot be a country of discrimination and xenophobia", he added.

Addressing this situation, Fr Ponce SJ noted that Ecuador could play a pivotal role in the advocacy of Haitians' rights and reconstruct a migration policy which would grant Haitians fleeing the current crisis with a visa for humanitarian reasons, and also a special visa for the victims of trafficking.

"We hope the Ecuadorian state will be an ally of JRS in its advocacy throughout Latin America to provide creative solutions for new arrivals", said Fr Ponce SJ.