Latin America’s Refugee Crisis Reaches Unprecedented Levels

With 23 million people displaced by six major humanitarian crises, Latin America and the Caribbean face an unprecedented emergency, as revealed by the UNHCR ahead of World Refugee Day.

Latin America and the Caribbean are grappling with a severe refugee crisis, with 23 million people currently displaced, either as refugees, internally displaced persons, or stateless individuals. This alarming statistic, highlighted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), underscores the region’s deepening humanitarian emergency, driven by six significant crises.

The data, part of UNHCR’s annual report published on June 13, comes as the organization hosts the Third Consultation of the ‘Cartagena +40’ process in Bogotá, supported by the Chilean government. This event gathers Latin American and Caribbean countries to seek solutions for displacement exacerbated by disasters and climate change.

The six crises significantly contributing to displacement in the region include those in the Northern Triangle of Central America—comprising Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—as well as Nicaragua, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Juan Carlos Murillo, Head of External Relations for the UNHCR Americas Bureau, explained the region’s unprecedented nature and complexity of forced displacement, emphasizing the multiple humanitarian crises at play.

In the Northern Triangle, over a million people have been forced to flee due to violence from organized crime and the impacts of climate change. These individuals, including asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced persons, and those returning with protection needs, face a precarious future.

Murillo detailed the situation in Nicaragua, where more than 200,000 people have fled primarily due to political persecution and human rights abuses. The government’s crackdown on political opponents has led to the stripping of nationality from dozens of Nicaraguans, rendering them stateless.

Haiti faces dire circumstances, with over 580,000 internally displaced persons and 800,000 individuals needing international protection across the continent. The nation’s political violence crisis has driven millions into humanitarian need, with 5.5 million requiring urgent assistance.

South America’s Humanitarian Challenges

In South America, Colombia remains a hotbed of displacement. The enduring armed conflict has resulted in over 6.9 million internally displaced persons, compounded by cross-border movements of Colombians seeking international protection. Venezuela’s crisis is similarly staggering, with more than 7.7 million people having left the country. Of these, 6.6 million are in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, making Venezuela one of the most significant displacement crises globally.

Ecuador also grapples with significant displacement issues due to organized crime and insecurity. Many Ecuadorians have been forced to move internally or cross international borders for safety. Last year alone, 520,085 people traversed the perilous Darién Gap, with Ecuadorians being the second-largest group at 57,250, only surpassed by Venezuelans.

According to UNHCR, approximately 75,000 Ecuadorians are in refugee or displaced conditions, including those who left via air travel to the United States.

Cartagena +40: Seeking Solutions

The ‘Cartagena +40’ meeting in Bogotá, convened by UNHCR and the Chilean government, aims to address these challenges. Participants include Latin American countries, civil society organizations, academics, the private sector, and financial institutions. The closed-door discussions will focus on the region’s refugee crisis 40 years after the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

This year, the spotlight is on those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. Atle Solberg, Head of the Secretariat of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, stressed the urgency of combating climate change to prevent further increases in internally displaced persons due to global warming.

Latin America has long been a region of migration and displacement, often driven by political turmoil, violence, and economic instability. The current refugee crisis, however, is unprecedented in scale and complexity. The Cartagena Declaration, adopted in 1984, was a landmark agreement providing broader protection criteria for refugees in the region, reflecting the unique displacement dynamics of Latin America.

Today, the principles of the Cartagena Declaration are more relevant than ever. The region’s governments, civil society, and international organizations must collaborate to address the multifaceted nature of displacement, which now includes significant environmental factors. The ‘Cartagena +40 process represents a critical opportunity to reinforce and adapt these principles to contemporary challenges.

The Broader Latin American Context

The crises in Central and South America are part of a broader pattern of instability affecting the region. Political violence, economic collapse, and environmental degradation are interlinked, creating a vicious cycle of displacement. For instance, Venezuela’s economic collapse has pushed millions into neighboring countries, straining local resources and infrastructure. Similarly, Central America’s combination of gang violence and climate impacts forces many to flee, often facing dangerous journeys northward.

Nicaragua’s political repression under Daniel Ortega has led to widespread persecution and statelessness, reminiscent of other authoritarian regimes in the region. Haiti’s chronic instability, exacerbated by political violence and natural disasters, continues to drive mass displacement.

Colombia’s long-standing conflict, despite peace agreements, still generates significant internal and cross-border displacement. Ecuador, often seen as a relatively stable country, now faces growing challenges from organized crime, leading to increased internal and international displacement.

Also read: Costa Rica Debates Referendum Threatening Oversight of Public Funds

The responses to these crises must be multifaceted, addressing root causes such as political instability, economic inequality, and climate change. The international community’s role, mainly through organizations like UNHCR, is crucial in supporting and advocating for comprehensive solutions.

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