BEIRUT: In a show of solidarity and humanitarian concern, Uruguay is coordinating the resettlement of 120 Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon.
While admitting that its contribution is limited, the Uruguayan government hopes to send a message of “fraternity” to the Lebanese people, who are currently hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, said Javier Miranda, Uruguay’s secretary of human rights.
“One hundred and twenty people is a small number, we know it’s not going to solve the situation. But at this moment it is the number [of refugees] we can accept while giving them the dignity they deserve,” Miranda said.
Uruguay, which has a population of some 3.3 million people, will be the first Latin American country to participate in a resettlement program for Syrian refugees.
Miranda and other Uruguayan officials traveled to Lebanon last week to interview Syrian families for the resettlement program.
“We decided to accept Syrians from Lebanon because Lebanon has the highest concentration of refugees, and their living conditions are very poor,” Miranda explained.
The process of choosing 120 refugees from nearly 1.2 million currently residing in Lebanon began with the UNHCR. The agency selected Syrian families to meet with Uruguayan officials based on a series of metrics. Survivors of violence, those with special medical needs, LGBT refugees and those facing persecution are prioritized for resettlement.
The Uruguay government established its own criteria for the program: The country’s president, José Mujica stipulated that at least 60 percent of the Syrian refugees in the resettlement program be minors. Given Uruguay’s large farming sector, the government asked for Syrian refugees with agricultural experience.
“Both for us and for them it is very important that they have access to work,” Miranda explained.
“It’s a fundamental aspect of social integration.”
“But we’re not importing cheap labor,” he said sternly.
The small Latin American country, squeezed between regional powers Argentina and Brazil, will offer free health care, housing and education to the refugees. Just as every Uruguayan public school student receives a laptop computer from the state, so too will Syrian refugee children in the resettlement program, Miranda added.
The UNHCR was “pleasantly surprised” when it was contacted by Uruguay officials about the resettlement initiative, said Michelle Alfaro, a senior regional protection officer at the refugee agency. “We recognize that this is a huge undertaking for them,” she added.
At $49 billion Uruguay’s gross domestic product is just slightly larger than Lebanon’s. Still, Uruguay’s resettlement program is larger than wealthier countries, like Spain, New Zealand and Luxemburg.
Fewer than 25 governments have agreed to welcome displaced Syrians, even though the number of refugees residing in neighboring countries has surpassed 3 million.
Alfaro hopes that Uruguay’s leadership will set an example for other Latin American countries which have thus far been loath to participate in resettlement or sponsorship programs.
Since Uruguay announced the resettlement program “three or four” other countries in Latin America have expressed interest in similar measures, Alfaro said.