When the United States announced its ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan, Latin American nations stayed away. As the United States built its coalition, El Salvador was the only country from the region to join the war efforts. Many countries of the region voiced their concerns against the war. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had stated that Brazil does not support terrorism but it did not support military action against Afghanistan in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was also critical of the United States’ air strikes in Afghanistan pointing that violence could not be defeated by more violence. The chaotic withdrawal of the United States and the Taliban’s return to power has justified the cautions expressed by Latin America.
As uncertainty envelops Afghanistan, many Afghans who worked with the coalition forces, international governments, and/or various international agencies, and newspapers etc. fear repercussions from the Taliban. The United States has faced repeated criticism for not processing the applications of Afghans working for U.S. government and its agencies before the withdrawal deadline. While the United States ramped up its evacuation flights, the American immigration system has struggled to meet the crisis. While other nations have also faced criticism, the United States as the largest partner had the majority of the responsibility. The United States has been criticised for the poorly planned evacuation of its citizens and also ‘at risk’ Afghan nationals such as interpreters and informers etc. who worked in direct contact with the United States military and government. The major criticism has been the long delay in processing the applications of Afghan nationals under the Special Immigrant Visa[i]. With the vast number of applications that needed to be processed, the process has been much delayed. In an effort to evacuate Afghans as quickly as possible, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a statement on 20 August 2021, pointed that 12 countries[ii] “...have made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans. We deeply appreciate the support they have offered, and are proud to partner with them in our shared support of the Afghan people. We are encouraged by other countries that are also considering providing support.”[iii] Of these, four are Latin American countries-Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico that are providing transit facilities to Afghan evacuees. In a subsequent press release the United States has thanked its partners and allies, for providing critical assistance for its evacuation efforts, this includes Ecuador, apart from mentioning the above four nations.[iv]
Afghan Refugees in Latin America
Since the mid-August takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, thousands of people have rushed to leave Afghanistan, but as many Western nations slowed the entry process, many developing nations have stepped into help. As stated above, five Latin American nations have agreed to be help the United States. Brazil, has also offered its help to refugees.
In a joint statement with Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador to Bogotá, Colombia’s President Iván Duque stated that Colombia would be part of the group of allied countries which will offer support to the United State for those nationals of Afghanistan who provided support to the United States for years and in the process of immigrating to the United States. The Afghan nationals will be in Colombia temporarily and the United States will cover all the cost of care of these people in Colombia.[v] President Duque stated that the move allows Colombia to protect human rights and rights of women while helping an ally in need.[vi] President Duque has stated that his country would work with the United States to process the applications so that immigrants can ‘quickly’ arrive in America. Vice President and Foreign Minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, had stated that Colombia did not know the number of people who will arrive; when they will come; or what the breakdown of men, women and families will be, but highlighted that Colombia is prepared to welcome them. Since the announcement it is being estimated that Colombia may have hosted close to 4,000 Afghans.[vii] Colombia’s immigration entity Migración Colombia noted that there are no restrictions for Afghans to move around the country. The arrival process will entail strict biosecurity protocols and regular health screenings.[viii] Colombia’s offer to host the Afghan refugees has caused some surprise as the Andean nation is already home to close to two million migrants from Venezuela that has caused minor social-economic problems, especially in the border areas. But it needs to be pointed that over the years Colombia has emerged as an important partner for the United States in the region.
Till September 2021, Mexico has received close to 391 Afghans including, media workers and their families, interpreters and translators and five members of a female robotics team. “Mexico receives you with open arms,” Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard told them, promising “all the support necessary” and citing “the Mexican tradition of asylum and refuge”.[ix] The Mexican government has stated that the Afghans would be provided with documents under which they will receive temporary humanitarian protection while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere. The Mexican government is now looking to extend similar protections to more journalists and to women who are in danger in Afghanistan.
What has been greatly appreciated has been the speed with which the Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, have been able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Afghanistan to Mexico. In clarifying its stand in the face of criticism that Mexico is trying to stem the tide of migrants from Central America but welcoming Afghan nations, Ebrard stated that the government’s actions were consistent with the Mexican push “to clear the difference between economic migrants and the people who are looking for refuge and asylum.”[x]
In August, the Central American nation of Costa Rica agreed to accept 48 Afghan women who had worked with the United Nations. Vice President Epsy Campbell further stated that Costa Rica would open its borders to serve as a humanitarian bridge for Afghan women looking for refuge. “We must all take necessary steps within our scope of action to safeguard the lives and well-being of the children and women of Afghanistan.”[xi] Costa Rica also signed a joint declaration with the European Union (EU), the United States and several countries, calling on “those who occupy positions of power and authority throughout Afghanistan” to guarantee the protection of women and girls.
It is unclear as of now if Costa Rica has taken in more Afghan refugees. The small nation is already home to more than 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers, 80 percent of who are from Nicaragua. A stable political climate, strong growth performance and rising living standards attract significant numbers of people, particularly from other countries in the region. While migrants have made a positive contribution, however, as a result of the economic fallout from the COVID-19, the economic situation has changed. It remains to be seen if the prevailing situation allows Costa Rica to take in more Afghan refugees.
In the context of the current crisis in Afghanistan, the Undersecretary of Foreign Relations, Carolina Valdivia, had met with representatives of the Afghan community in Chile in August 2021 and assured them that Chile would help them.[xii] In September 2021, Chile granted refugee to the first Afghan citizen and since then Chile has welcomed a group of Afghan refugees who have relatives in the Afghan community of the country. As of 23 September 2021, Chile had received 40 people, including relatives of the Afghan community and groups that are sponsored by non-governmental organisations.[xiii] Chile has stated that it would grant refugee status to more Afghans. For the moment, members of the Afghan community in Chile have sought help for their stranded relatives. Since there is no representation of Chile on Afghanistan, the refugees had to cross the border to Iran on their own, where they are met with Chilean diplomats who then help them travel to Chile via Qatar.
President Guillermo Lasso on 24 August 2021, announced through his twitter account (@LassoGuillermo) that, “We (Ecuador) will provide humanitarian aid to Afghan families, victims of the conflict. Ecuador will temporarily receive Afghans in transit to the United States, as part of an international cooperation agreement to guarantee their safety and protection.”[xiv]. This was further reiterated by a press release (06 September) by the U.S. Department of State thanking “countries (which included Ecuador) that have made generous offers to help in a variety of ways regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans.”[xv] There no confirmation on the number of refugees who will come to Ecuador, which already houses a large number of migrants from Venezuela and also some from Colombia.
While not part of the 12 countries which are assisting the United States in relocating the Afghan nationals, as of October 2021, Brazil had issued 30 humanitarian visas to Afghan nations with some 400 requests pending with the foreign ministry and other federal agencies. Addressing the 76th UN General Assembly session, President Jair Bolsonaro stated that Brazil will grant humanitarian visas for Christians, women, children and Afghan judges.[xvi] Two groups of refugees are under consideration, a group of female photographers and a group of female judges-both fleeing gender-based persecution. With borders closed, refugees have to enter a third country before they can fly to Brazil.
Brazil National Commission for Refugees (CONARE) is the Government’s Committee responsible for reviewing and deciding all asylum claims in Brazil. It is also the authority responsible for defining the Brazilian policy of refuge. The agency had begun to fast-track Afghans’ asylum claims as the Taliban progressively captured major power centres in Afghanistan. The Brazil government had stated that Afghans wishing to seek asylum will be able to take advantage of the same simplified mechanism that allowed Brazil to recognise some 50,000 Venezuelans as refugees, almost without papers. This allows any Afghan to seek asylum in Brazil without having to prove that they suffer from political or religious persecution. The United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) called the plan a “milestone in refugee protection.”
Brazil as part of the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) joined the four other nations to emphasise the need to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a staging ground for terrorist activities aimed at other nations as well as a sanctuary for terrorists. It stressed the need to foster an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure peace, stability and order in Afghanistan in the Delhi Declaration which was issued after the 13th meeting of the grouping.[xvii]
As the security situation in Afghanistan remains fluid, the evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghan nationals continues to pose serious challenges. So far, the responses from these countries have been limited to accepting the refugees from Afghanistan on temporary basis. The fact remains that Latin American nations are geographically far from Afghanistan and their security concerns does not necessarily coincide with those of the United States. However, given the existing problems they have as a result of inter-regional migrants, most nations of the region have stressed on the temporary nature of the stay of the Afghan nationals.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The U.S. Congress has enacted a series of legislative provisions since 2006 to enable certain Iraqi and Afghan nationals to become U.S. lawful permanent residents (LPRs). These provisions make certain Iraqis and Afghans who worked as translators or interpreters, or who were employed by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government in Iraq or Afghanistan, eligible for special immigrant visas (SIVs).
[ii] Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, and Uganda.
[iii] Office of the Spokesperson, US Department of State, “Gratitude to Our Allies and Partners for Supporting U.S. Efforts to Evacuate U.S. Citizens, Partners, and At-Risk Afghans,”https://www.state.gov/gratitude-to-our-allies-and-partners-for-supporting-u-s-efforts-to-evacuate-u-s-citizens-partners-and-at-risk-afghans/, Accessed on 11 October 2021.
[iv] Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “The United States Conducts Unprecedented Relocation Effort,” https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-conducts-unprecedented-relocation-effort/, Accessed on 22 October 2021.
[v]Presidencia de la República – Colombia, “Declaración del Presidente Iván Duque y el Embajador de Estados Unidos en Colombia, Philip Goldberg,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF4N4Y6IEOI,Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[vii] Emma Newbery, “Colombia to take Afghan evacuees,” https://thebogotapost.com/colombia-to-take-afghan-evacuees/49198/, Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[viii]----, “Colombians empathetic to arrival of Afghan refugees reveals poll,” http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/colombians-empathetic-to-arrival-of-afghan-refugees-reveals-poll/28001, Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[ix] Andres Schipani, David Agren and Gideon Long, “Africa and Latin America become stopovers for Afghan refugees,” https://www.ft.com/content/fbb2a5a9-b652-49dd-bf8f-d9cdb5db9447.
[x]Ben Smith, “How Mexico Helped The Times Get Its Journalists Out of Afghanistan,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/business/media/new-york-times-mexico-afghanistan.html,Accessed on 11 October 2021.
[xi]----, “Costa Rica offers refuge to Afghan women,” https://ticotimes.net/2021/08/18/costa-rica-offers-refuge-to-afghan-women,Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[xii]Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chile, “Foreign Ministry meets with representatives of the Afghan community in Chile to evaluate formulas to support their families in Afghanistan,” https://minrel.gob.cl/minrel/site/artic/20210818/pags/20210818113424.html, Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[xiii]Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chile, “The first group of relatives of the Chilean Afghan community arrived to our country,” https://minrel.gob.cl/news/the-first-group-of-relatives-of-the-chilean-afghan-community-arrived-to,Accessed on 12 October 2021.
[xiv] Guillermo Lasso (@LassoGuillermo), tweet available at https://twitter.com/LassoGuillermo/status/1429993412992851971/photo/1
[xv] Op.Cit, 04, Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State
[xvi]Speech By President Jair Bolsonaro at the UN General Assembly, 19 September 2021. Available at https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/10.0010/20210921/AT2JoAvm71nq/1a6r0NkCnoc6_ot2.pdf.
[xvii]Ministry of External Relations, Government of Brazil, “XIII BRICS Summit- New Delhi Declaration,” https://www.gov.br/mre/en/contact-us/press-area/press-releases/xiii-brics-summit-new-delhi-declaration, Accessed on 11 October 2021.