By Laura Lyons*
Mary, a hardworking woman, fleeing from the violence and poverty of her country, decided to search for a better future. She crossed thousands of miles and several borders to arrive at her destination. When she finally reached the last border, she was greeted with insulting comments regarding her nationality and skin color, and was refused entry by the arbitrary decision of a border control agent. So Mary paid a large sum of money to enter illegally. When she arrived at the capitol, she faced unfair work conditions that took advantage of her immigrant status and economic need. Worse, she had to tolerate racist and xenophobic acts and comments against immigrants from her native country.
This story, which is repeated daily, could be the story of a Central American woman migrating to the United States, or an African following the European dream. But, incredibly, it is based on the story of thousands of Latin American citizens that migrate to a country within their same region, and are discriminated against because of their skin color and nationality, and are treated as second class citizens.
As demonstrated in this example, Latin Americans that immigrate to other countries in the region, in particular Chileand Argentina, suffer various human rights violations. They are victims of xenophobia and stigmatization, as nationals claim that because of the immigrant’s nationality she must be a drug trafficker, thief, or a prostitute. Additionally, because of the informal nature of their employment contracts, they often receive lower salaries and longer hours than other employees.
An example of such behavior are the marches and graffiti against Colombian immigrants in Chile, the denial of healthcare and education to Colombian immigrants in Ecuador, and the discrimination that many immigrants suffer in Argentina.
To directly address the human rights violations that Latin American immigrants suffer, States have adopted several international instruments, such as the Declaration of Cartagena. Nonetheless, to guarantee effective compliance with these guidelines and principles it is first necessary to undertake studies to obtain sufficient qualitative information regarding the living conditions of immigrants, considering that currently there are only numerical figures regarding the approximate number of legal immigrants.
After such studies, Latin American governments should take advantage of current regional integration systems to directly address this problem from a human rights perspective. This would ensure that integration efforts are not limited to economic aspects of trade in goods and services, or the formal aspect of immigration, but rather guarantee the rights of immigrants from the moment they arrive at their new destination.
Additionally, regional governments need to take measures to address the reasons for which people decide to migrate to other countries. Some of the causes of immigration, such as generalized violence, armed conflict, unemployment, and poverty are well known. Nonetheless, there is a cause that in Latin American that we have yet to fully recognize: racism, which is a fundamental reason behind the economic and social reality of indigenous and Afro-descendant people in our region.
Indigenous and Afro-descendant populations generally suffer higher levels of unemployment than the rest of the population, and, as mentioned in a Racial Discrimination Watch report, in the Colombian case, they represent the population most affected by forced displacement.
Latin American governments and people generally consider racial discrimination to be a problem outside our reality; a problem restricted to the United States and Europe. Perhaps the best example of this denial of racial discrimination in Latin America is the declaration made by Ariel Dulitzky and other presidents of the region in 2000. They stated their concern for the resurgence of racism and manifestation of discrimination in other parts of the world, and declared their commitment to avoiding the propagation of this phenomenon in Latin America.
These facts demonstrate the urgent need to adopt domestic and regional campaigns and policies to combat racism. Regional governments should start by accepting the existence of racism, and reject that because of the mestizo character of the population we do not have problems of racism. Thus, we can begin by recognizing that we have a multiracial society, in order to adopt measures that facilitate the recognition and effective exercise of human rights and fundamental liberties of those who have been victims of such actions.
*Laura Lyons is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia)
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