Argentina’s Response to the Refugee Crisis Is Everything Europe’s Isn’t

(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, September 16, 2015). 


Argentina, distant and guiltless in the current crisis engulfing Europe and the Middle East, has offered a coherent and consistent refugee policy.

If the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe has exposed a drastic lack of unity among European states, it has also shown a clear divergence in policy between Europe — which, along with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan is currently bearing the heaviest burden of the influx — and other parts of the world.

In the Gulf States close to Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, the response has been a consistent refusal to provide for refugees. Saudi Arabia, one of the largest, richest and most powerful countries in the region, has taken in some refugees (reports differ wildly as to how many) but not offered a single concrete resettlement program. It’s the same case for UAE and Qatar, as wealthy as they are.

Then there are far corners of the world which are not affected by the same extreme urgency but where governments are still aware of the international nature of the problem. Post-modern globalization increasingly means that no country is an island.

This brings us to Latin America and Argentina.

Today, as a destination for people seeking a life better than that which is possible in their homeland, Argentina as a state is unambiguously welcoming. It’s constitutionally bound, in fact, to be this way. After all, it’s what the country was essentially built on. “To govern is to populate,” said Juan Bautista Alberdi in 1852 (he’s a key historical figure as well as a stop on the Linea A Subte).

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Image via wikipedia).

For the last decade or so, Argentina has specifically enshrined migration — the umbrella term that includes people fleeing war, famine, poverty and so on — as a human and therefore inviolable right (more on this later).

Fast forward to the current situation and the international refugee crisis in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in particular. The President’s latest foray into the issue came last week, when she emotionally pleaded with Latinos across the region not to follow the example some nations were setting in “the North.”


So has the North, and Europe in particular, really been so bad? The answer, of course, is a bit more complicated than that. Something Cristina’s outburst last week forgot to mention was the overwhelming humanity of thousands and thousands of ordinary Europeans that have gone out of their way to help those arriving at that door: the mountains of donated food and clothing, the coordinated refugee-welcome campaigns across major European cities… this is the other, grassroots and altogether more positive side of the coin.

But examining government policy in Europe on its own, one thing that stands out is the sheer lack of a coherent strategy. Let’s take this article’s author’s own homeland as an example.

In October 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK was formally withdrawing support from the search and rescue operations currently saving lives every day in the Mediterranean. Hundreds, possibly thousands of men, women and children died on the dangerous crossing before he quietly reversed the decision months later.

His xenophobic opening salvos during the height of British summer (the word “swarm” was used by Cameron, not to describe ants ruining a picnic but homeless refugees forced into a Hooverville in the French port Calais) were forced to beat a hasty retreat as more human and humane public opinion united behind the refugees and pushed him and his knee-jerk Daily Mail appeasing flirtations (“send in the army”) back to the stinking pit they came from.

The Prime Minister then made an overtly heartfelt speech a few weeks ago telling the world he had been “moved” by the image of a drowned six-year-old boy lying face down in the Turkish surf, that Britain was now completely changing her Conservative summer position on the issue and could we please stop putting pressure on him thank you very much.

Now, 20,000 is the latest number of refugees the UK will take in, over five years. Sounds impressive enough, but when we scrape just a hair’s breadth beneath the surface, we discover that in fact this only equates to around 12 refugees per day, while Germany has taken in reported tens of thousands in the last weeks alone and tiny, impoverished and war-torn Lebanon currently shelters 1.1 million Syrians. Cameron’s latest commitment is “Barely even a response,” as Green Party MP Caroline Lucas remarked after the announcement.

Still, at least he has changed his stance and bowed to the great swing of public opinion on the issue while other EU states continue to stonewall, scapegoat and even abuse the needy arriving at their front door.

Hungary was a case in point, as underlined late last week when Hungarian police were filmed forcing starving refugees to compete for food as they threw sandwiches into outstretched hands of a desperate crowd, or when Hungarian riot police refused to give water to refugees waiting on the wrong side of newly erected barbed wire fences.

Other low-lights from the right-wing central European government included the forcing of thousands of refugees to walk the hundreds of miles from central Budapest station to the Austrian border, and the crypto-fascist prime minister telling his population that they are under attack from a “rebellion of Muslims,” etc.

Add to this the complete U-turn of German policy which now closes the borders once more, and this tiny glimpse offered by such stories help expose many European government policies on Eurasian migration and refugees for what they are: an utter shambles.


This is not something that can be said in candor of Cristina and the Argentine government on the issue, who, physically more distant from the crisis than their European counterparts and so with a far more comfortable degree of flexibility, have issued a robust, clear-cut and extremely timely policy response featuring the single most important thing lacking in Europe: regional integration of policies.

As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) analyzed following the Cartagena+30 process which gathered South American nations to discuss and form policy reponses to global migration and refugees:


While the numbers taken in have been modest, Cristina and Co’s decision to further widen the non-discriminatory door to refugees only emphasized how enlightened their immigration policy had been in the first place.

The amnesty extended to Syrian and Palestinian refugees for two years is, in fact, in part outdone by existing laws in Argentina, which guarantee migration as a human right and therefore — technically at least — as inviolable and guaranteed without recourse to bureaucracy.

Argentina has one of the most progressive set of rules and legislation regarding the free movement of peoples anywhere in the world. In 2004, Law 25.871 enshrined human movement — migration, call it what you like — as the fundamental human right it probably ought to be everywhere. It did away with the lingering fascism of “Videla’s Law,” from the dark years of the dictatorship (1976-1983), which saw authorities screen all migrants depending on their “cultural characteristics and possibility of successful integration,” as the law specified with a heavy dose of racism.

Law 25.871 explicitly states that migrants of all kinds, especially refugees, will be accepted regardless of the current status and availability of the necessary paperwork.

And even though the blanket implementation of the Law has encountered a number of hurdles,  its very existence puts other countries’ immigration policies to shame as far as human rights are concerned, at least according to a Cornell University study into Argentine migration policy past and present:


Also, the Argentine policy casts a necessarily wider net than some European countries regarding who is eligible to seek asylum from the war-torn regions of the Middle East. Alongside Syrians, Palestinians are also directly welcome under the new emergency legislation, unlike in numerous European states’ rapidly hashed policy responses and vague, confused soundbites.

Destroyed house in Gaza City following an Israeli bombardment. Palestine is an increasing source of refugees. (Image via wikipedia).

In the UK, the media zeitgeist and often-corresponding political rhetoric surrounding the refugees is shamefully short on mentioning the current humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories of Palestine, most especially Gaza which will be literally “unlivable” by 2020, according to the UN, if Israel’s illegal and inhumane siege — not to mention sporadic massacres of civilians — in the region does not stop.


Cristina made another point in her calculated, emotional outburst last week that also bears consideration.


Somewhat clumsily, she hits the causal nail on the head. A further fact to set apart Europe and Latin America generally on this issue is the geo-political, economic and industrial connections to war in the Middle East.

Just look at Libya, for example, a source of many thousands of refugees since it was plunged into chaos in 2011 by intervening powers intent on removing an undoubtedly nasty despot who they had nonetheless happily supported for years beforehand when it suited them. All to the benefit of the corporate sponsors of some of those NATO powers involved: Total (France), Marathon Oil (US) and so on swiftly carved out stakes in the nation’s oil supplies.

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. (Image via wikipedia).

Latin American governments have not been paragons of perfect behavior since 9/11 themselves, but one thing they are not guilty of (in fact, for the most part blissfully incapable of anyway) is imposing unilateral regime change via armed conflict on an immensely complex political arena (the Middle East) with little credible plan for making whatever comes next work.

The botched removal of mass-murdering Saddam Hussein in the 2003 Iraq War, who was supported for years by Washington and London beforehand even as he committed his atrocities, created a power vacuum into which ISIS emerged where it could not under the dictator’s iron grip.

It’s a similar story with the arms trade. Afghan refugees flee from Russian Kalashnikovs and US cluster bombs that were either given directly to the Taliban (in the case of arms from the US) or else acquired by them after the Cold War proxy between the West and the Soviet Union in the country wound down.

Syrians meanwhile run from the Russian guns and bombs pumped into the Civil War by Moscow, while Gazans unprepared to stay and risk death for themselves and their families whenever the next invasion by the IDF falls are fleeing bullets, white phosphorus, shells and more essentially paid for and supplied by the United States government.

In each case, the assorted lethality currently making the mass killing in the Middle East possible was overwhelmingly made in the North, be it Russia, the UK, the US or elsewhere.

Add to this the shameless flip-flopping NATO policies about which bad guy to bomb in hellish Gordian knot of the Syrian Civil War, which seems to change with the seasons and be lifted directly out of the Ministry of Peace handbook from Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Definitions of friend, ally and enemy to the Northern military powers, particularly the US and UK, change often and easily. Cristina made this very point at the UN last year, which needs saying far more frequently.


Of course, the xenophobia that exists towards many Andean migrants from Bolivia, Peru or Colombia in some corners of Argentine society; the coercion of many of these impoverished economic migrants into situations of quasi-slave labor in countless underground sweatshops here in the Greater Buenos Aires Area in particular; not to mention the abhorrent existence of widespread hunger and malnutrition in Argentina — these are all shameful realities that need to be addressed by the government and lawmakers urgently.

But they don’t exist as a result of state policy. A severe lack of it, more likely, but this bares no direct or especially helpful comparison to the immediate and pressing issue of the refugee crisis revolving around the Mediterranean.

On this, Argentina’s state policy and existing progressive laws show coherence, nuance and above all consistency that, along with a region-wide concensus, is lacking across the Atlantic. So we can maybe forgive Cristina a small bout of point scoring this time, as ugly as it was. Just this once.


Foreign residents endure less red tape

By Orlando Jenkinson
Herald Staff


(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), July 10, 2015). 


Immigrants coming to live and work in Argentina continue to face a bureaucratic gauntlet when applying for a temporary or permanent visa and the necessary National Identification Document (DNI), but a series of reforms to the application system and improvements to Buenos Aires City’s immigration centre have refined the process for some.

The Interior and Transport Ministry launched sweeping reforms of Argentina’s passport, DNI document and visa application process in 2009, significantly modernizing all elements, including the addition of a digital element which, in theory, has made day-to-day use more straightforward and streamlined the application and renewal processes.

However, whether this streamlining has extended to immigrants choosing to stay and work in Argentina and their own experiences in obtaining visas and identification remains less clear. The application process for expats is necessarily more complex and demands more preliminary steps than it does for natives. This is true even for those arriving from neighbouring nations belonging to the region’s the supra-state trading bloc Mercosur, who need less documentation than others.

Twenty-one-year-old Laura Sán-chez, an industrial design student from Bolivia currently living in Las Cañitas, found her recent experience complicated by staff at the newly renovated immigration centre in Retiro.

“The people who processed all my paperwork were fine, but when I needed information, they were dismissive — as if you were supposed to know the answer, despite sitting there with a sign saying ‘information.’ They weren’t helpfull at all.” Indeed, many immigrants including Laura turn to their national consulates for technical help after after the information services at migraciones fail to provide adequate help.

Issues regarding the availability of information for the labyrinth application process appears a recurring theme among immigrants seeking either the student or work visa and associated DNI. Uruguayan Juan Eraso, 28, was frustrated in his efforts to gain legal residency status having moved from Montevideo and found work in Buenos Aires to fund his performance arts degree, also based in the City.

“The process is very complicated, and I consistently had problems knowing what steps I needed to take and when,” he said, smiling nonetheless now that his visa and DNI were safely in hand. “I was only informed by the authorities much later that rules had changed and I needed more documentation, by which time the paperwork I had aquired such as my Argentine Criminal Record Check was expired, and I had to repeat many steps again.”

Inaccessible or lacking information vital to the application process can exacerbate the complicated, multi-stage process, which is itself fraught with potential difficulties. The sheer number of different steps successful applications require can lead to the system tying itself in knots, whereby certain documents become invalid before others are issued. Consequently, “the experience was nothing shy of unpleasant,” according to Rubén López, a data processor and economics student from El Salvador living in Palermo.

“I had my temporary residency precaria form, which had a validity of three months, but after two and a half had elapsed, there was no sign of my DNI and I was close to having to leave the country. I tried to contact immigration, but every number I found simply led me to answering machines. I was getting desperate,” he says, having only resolved the problem by renewing his temporary residency — involving more paperwork — until the DNI arrived.

Yet for the many immigrants like Rubén frustrated by the application process, there remain others among Buenos Aires’ expansive immigrant population — the City is home to between 400,000 and half a million foreign nationals — who find the system in its current form much improved.

James Clacton, 42, a software developer living in Belgrano, experienced the process before and after the reforms began in 2009 and attests to the improvements made. “Back in 2006, to first get my permanent residency, I had to wait in line at the dilapidated old RENAPER office in Retiro at literally 4am because they only gave out about 100 numbers per day, and if you were in the back of the line you would miss out… All in all it took me about six months to get my residency and another 18 months to process my DNI.”

He says that since the gradual reforms, which required everyone to re-apply for the new digital DNI, the process has become far easier for foreigners such as himself. “A few weeks ago, with much trepidation, I applied for my new plastic card DNI. This time I was in and out of the office in an hour, and they delivered it in the mail about three weeks later… As Kafkaesque as things sometimes are here, some things have actually improved in recent years.”

Mixed progress in expat fortunes regarding the bureaucratic aspects to emigrating is also reflected by some foreigners arriving here only recently and encountering relatively few difficulties. “I got my first appointment a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how nice all the employees were with me and how easy it’s been to get the temporary residency permit,” says Fanita Guadalupe Juárez Pimppiez, 30, a French immigrant who works as a coordinator at the local Alianza Francesa theatre in the northern Greater BA district of Martínez. However, avoiding the extra paperwork necessary to obtain the DNI streamlined the process, she concedes.

Similarly proofreader Allan Kelin, in his fifties and originally from from New York City, reported a generally positive experience during his appointment at the immigration centre. “I found that all the bureaucracy was bearable because, without exception, the people behind the glass or desk all took the time to make sure I understood what was required and where I needed to go next. There are several steps and many people waiting, but the experience was never de-humanizing.”

‘So much better this year’

Though updated, however, the complex visa and DNI application process can still leave some prospective expats cold. Indeed, the reocurring instances of false information for those applying persist. Autumn Pittman, 42, a business owner from the United States living in Caballito, was left in legal limbo for extended periods as a result.

“I got my precaria and CUIL and I feel it took far too long. We have been through several processes since coming here over a year ago. I wish someone would update the website now and then as it would have saved us a ton of wasted visits to government buildings and agencies,” she said.

Similar problems, such as the changing of application fees without widespread notifications, were also reported, though few immigrants living in Argentina long enough to experience the necessary beureaucracy that comes with expat life reported that the situation had deteriorated. For many, it has gradually improved.

“The first time I applied was quite stressful. I was new to the city and my Spanish was bad. The company I worked for sponsored me but gave me the instructions in Spanish so I had to rely on helpful colleagues to get everything organized. It took about three months to get everything. Migraciones was unorganized and the workers were quite rude,” said Megan Edwards, a 33-year-old Candian from Alberta now working as a teacher trainer, remembering her first experience.

She was adamant that the bureaucracy was now more manageble, though. “This year, it was so much better. They’ve done some awesome changes at Migraciones. It’s much more organized and the workers were very helpful and friendly.”