BRUSSELS, Belgium – On an official visit to the European Union headquarters, Argentine President Mauricio Macri said that his nation will welcome some 3,000 Syrian refugees in the coming months, adding to the 1,000 that have arrived in recent years.
Since the Syrian conflict erupted in March of 2011, Argentina has welcomed some 1,000 refugees from the Middle Eastern nation. This was done mostly through the State but some 200 of those refugees came thanks a special institution called the ‘Syria Program’ of the National Migration Office.
The issue with the ‘Syria Program,’ however, was that any individuals that wanted to resettle in Argentina had to already have family in the South American nation and a humanitarian organized had be lined up and confirmed in their assistance. In that sense, the refugees were provided with the barebones logistical support but no humanitarian support.
“The ‘Syria Program’ is incomplete,” said Roberto Ahuad, the Argentine (of Syrian ancestry) that served as the Ambassador to Syria from 2010 until 2013 when he was recalled to Buenos Aires for his own safety despite his desire to stay.
“The new proposal put forth to welcome 3,000 refugees is humanitarian in nature, and will be the responsibility of the State. It is a commendable task and it should not only be carried out but carried out well,” said Ahuad, who was also the head of the Confederation of Arab-Argentines.
The “new proposal” Ahuad referenced is the recent agreement reached between Macri and several European leaders as the former visited Brussels in search of new economic integration and trade deals.
Macri presented a document that he signed that would “receive new refugees from zones of conflict.” Another signature appeared on the document and that was of Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Mogherini represents the EU side in the proposal as the agreement stipulates that the European Commission would provide “technical support and logistic aid” in the process of resettling some 3,000 Syrian refugees in Argentina.
The intentions for the plan were announced last month by Macri’s Chief of Cabinet, Marcos Peña, who said that “Argentina wants to be a part of the solution to a global problem.”
Some 400,000 people have been killed since the ongoing Syrian conflict erupted in March of 2011 and over 4 million Syrians have been turned into refugees. Meanwhile, over 7.5 million people are internally displaced in what has become the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
With Syrians fleeing to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East en masse (but encountering more and more friction and difficulty in resettling), some are now hoping to repeat what their ancestors did in the millions decades ago when their country was still a part of the Ottoman Empire.
South America received millions of Syrian immigrants, many of them religious minorites back in their homelands (Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and much smaller numbers of Shiites, Alawites, and Druze), mainly starting in the late 1800s and leveling off in the years following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Immigration to South America picked up again intermittently, coinciding with major civil wars and other conflicts in the Middle East.
Many were dubbed “Turcos,” or Turks, because of their Ottoman immigration identification, and it is very common for Latin Americans with Arab ancestry to be given the nickname “El Turco” affectionately.
Brazil is thought to have the largest Syrian population in South America, with approximately seven million people claiming at least partial Syrian ancestry. Argentina is next, with over three-and-a-half million (of which nearly 85 percent are Christians, including former leader Carlos Menem), while Venezuela and Colombia each boast a Syrian population that nears half a million. Smaller numbers of Syrian immigrants and descendants are found throughout the continent.
So far, Argentina has attempted to organize a movement to welcome Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the country following a sharp uptick in demand at the Argentinian embassy in Damascus, most notably through the ‘Syria Program.’
The nature of the program, however, has led authorities to conclude that the number of Syrian entrants into Argentina (and South America as a whole) is much higher than any official figures due to the fact that many Syrians were welcomed by family members rather than official immigration officials.
Across the continent, government agencies, religious charities and Syrian organizations have joined the cause to help their new countrymen adapt to their new lives. Language classes, temporary housing and help in finding jobs have been provided by these groups, which include the Syrian Orthodox Church of Brazil and Argentina.
The Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Argentina, Crisóstomo Gassali, says that it is “vital” that the agreement between Buenos Aires and Brussels “provides measures for full integration” for the Syrian refugees.
“The Church does what it can, but it is limited to the donations of our followers,” said Gassali, a Syrian refugee himself who fled his native home of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the scene of arguably the fiercest fighting in the conflict, in 2013.
“We have to learn from other countries that have accepted refugees in the sense that there need to be plans in place for reintegration in terms of learning the language, work opportunities and proper living arrangements. I have personally received seven refugees myself from Syria and Iraq without the help of anybody and it is incredibly difficult. For this reason, I speak from experience when I say that plans have to be in place before the refugees arrive,” Gassali said.