Advocates are disappointed that Canada has welcomed just 11 refugees in a United Nations program designed to help thousands of Central Americans flee a life of kidnapping, gangs and sexual violence.
The Protection Transfer Arrangement, in effect since 2016, was touted as “an innovative life-saving mechanism” for people trying to escape the so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatamela, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world for countries not at war.
The program identified more than 3,100 people in need of protection. So far, only 387 migrants have been resettled worldwide.
“We are really disappointment at the response to the PTA (program),” said Pamela Arancibia of the Coalition for Northern Central America, a Toronto-based advocacy group for migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle region.
“Resettlement is one mechanism we have to address the crisis. This is not acceptable.”
Canada surpassed the United States and resettled more refugees than any other country in the world in 2018. Although Ottawa brought in more than 28,000 under its refugee sponsorship programs last year, Canada mostly welcomed migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, with few coming from Central and South America.
This week, after criticisms of not doing enough for the escalating crisis in Venezuela, Ottawa announced it would support the decree passed by the Venezuelan opposition-controlled National Assembly in early June and recognize the validity of Venezuelan passports that have expired because the government has not been able to replace them in the midst of an administrative meltdown.
Although Venezuelan travellers must still fulfil all elgibility and entry requirements, those who are already in Canada or planning to come can still use their invalid passports, so they will not be caught in limbo.
The U.S. and Canada are rolling back its committment to protecting people fleeing violence and persecution as part of the worldwide trend to deny refugees right to protection, with Mexico being the “buffer” to migrants forced to seek protection in North America.
Canadian companies have a lot of economic interests in the resource extraction industry in the region, which can sidestep the government’s response to the regional crisis, said Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Global Migration Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.
Ottawa hasn’t really focused much on the crisis on its own continent, said Smith, because the government has resisted calling out President Donald Trump’s controversial practices such as the U.S. administration’s plan to eliminate access to asylum for Central Americans.
“Our resettlement of Syrian refugees showed that we can act quickly. Canada needs to step up and help,” said Smith, adding that the Liberal government should use the UN Protection Transfer Arrangement to make an impact.
Under the joint program by the UN Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration and the Costa Rican government, civic organizations in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatamela screen and identify high-risk migrants, before transferring them to Costa Rica while they wait for the processing of their resettlement to a participating third country willing to take them.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, of the 387 migrants resettled under that program over the last three years, 322 were taken in by the U.S., 30 by Australia, 24 by Uruguay and 11 by Canada (all in Quebec). Recently, Brazil also welcomed 11. The UN only had a modest goal of resettling 800 refugees a year through the program.
“We are confident that Canada has a strong role to play in the region,” said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ottawa.
“We have had ongoing discussions with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to support the resettlement effort there.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland are scheduled to meet this week in Ottawa and the current situation in Venezuela will be on the agenda.
The UNHCR estimates 4.3 million Venezuelans fled economic and political turmoil in their country, mainly to Colombia (where there are 1.2 million) as well as to Peru, Chile and Ecuador. Some 180,000 have stayed in Brazil.
In a report in June, the Organization of American States said the Venezuelan exodus could reach as many as 8.2 million people by the end of 2020, surpassing the 6.7 million people who have fled the Syrian war since 2011.
With files from The Canadian Press
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Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung