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The border between Costa Rica and Panama where forced migrants are sometimes refused entry or sent back to places where their lives are in danger. (Gorka Ortega/Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Bogota) November 5, 2013 – Refugees from Colombia, Haiti and Central America fleeing conflict and generalized violence leave their homes hoping to find safety for themselves and their families. Yet, some countries in the region arbitrarily refuse them entry at their borders and at times send them back to places where their lives, freedoms are in danger.

Though this practice, known as refoulement, has been prohibited under international human rights law, in reality it has become a regular tool of migration control in the region. This principle was considered so important to the protection of refugees and other forced migrants that was specifically re-emphasized in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

The declaration updates and extends the concept and the system of international refugee protection in Latin America. It recognizes denial of access to a country at the border – be it the refusal of an asylum application at a border post or at any other point of entry to a country – as a violation of the principle of non-refoulement. In fact, several countries in Latin America, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, among others, explicitly included the prohibition of refoulement at the border in their legislation.

Abuse on the border. While this principle has been incorporated into domestic legislation in most countries in the region, it is worthwhile examining how it is implemented. A review of the application of this principle is necessary given increasing incidents of non-refoulement experienced by refugees seeking international protection throughout the region.

Jesuit Refugee Service has documented repeated cases of refoulement of Colombian forced migrants seeking to enter the Panamanian border region of the Darien Gap, to the Ecuadorian provinces of Carchi and Esmeraldas and the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia. Moreover, JRS partners have reported how the Brazilian authorities have prevented Haitians fleeing human rights violations from entering the country, forcing them to remain in isolated regions of Amazon and Acre.

Similarly, Central Americans have been arbitrarily prevented from crossing the Guatemalan, Mexican and U.S. borders. Furthermore, Haitians, Dominicans and Cubans who, under the dangerous journey to reach Miami or the English-speaking islands of the United States, are interdicted on the high seas.

Many of these people suffered the brunt of humanitarian crises due to an unjust distribution of resources and foreign assistance, while others faced serious human rights violations, at the hands of criminal networks, complicit authorities and indifferent governments.

However, the question of the humanization of border management goes beyond whether or not these individuals should or should not be recognized as refugees. It is a question of fundamental human rights which should take priority over secondary issues, such as border security and other political and legal criteria for entry into national territories.

At the very least, the principle of non-refoulement on the borders and the right to seek asylum should be respected, as reiterated nearly 30 years ago in the Cartagena Declaration. But the goal remains the construction of a hospitable and open region: a Latin America without borders.

by Wooldy Edson Louidor, JRS Latin America Communications Coordinator

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