IN NOVEMBER 1984, ten Central and South American countries held a colloquium in Cartagena, Colombia, on refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama. It was not an official gathering, and the document it issued, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, does not bind any government.
What is striking about the declaration is the expanded definition it gives the word “refugee.” The 1951 UN convention confined itself essentially to a person with a “well-founded fear of (persecution in his home country) … (who) is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of (his country’s) protection …”
Cartagena went further. It recommended the addition of people “who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”
(That formulation might one day embrace even the embattled Nicolas Maduro, not the world’s outstanding practitioner of human rights, but flagellator-in-chief of what he considers US “aggression” against him.)
And the phrase “other circumstances” is like grandma’s petticoat: it covers everything, and could conceivably be utilised by every single Venezuelan, Nigerian or Bangladeshi asylum-seeker in TT. But I repeat: the declaration is non-binding on governments.
It is the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action of early December 2014 that come closer to home. Those documents were adopted by a Brasilia meeting held at government level – TT was one of the governments – to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena colloquium. The meeting’s declaration noted with approval that “the extended refugee definition of the Cartagena declaration has been incorporated in large measure by the majority of Latin American countries in their internal legislation…”
So even if the Cartagena declaration is non-binding, most Latin American governments have apparently gone ahead and accepted its broadening of the 1951 UN convention’s scope. Not TT, of course. It took us nearly 40 years after our political independence merely to accede to the convention, and I understand we haven’t yet passed it into our domestic law. In any case, we aren’t Latin American, are we?
The trouble with that line of thinking is that the Brazil declaration makes particular reference to the Caribbean, and to matters that affect the Caribbean, of which we are unquestionably a part. It says, for instance, that a Caribbean regional dialogue should be established to adopt a strategy for institutional strengthening, which would include “a progressive approach for the development of asylum systems and the implementation of refugee status determination procedures …”
It underlines “the need for voluntary repatriation” – I hope some people are listening – “to be based on objective and updated information on the country of origin and to be carried out in safety and dignity, as part of a comprehensive solutions strategy …” It urges states – and this widens David Abdulah’s proposal for a high-level TT-Venezuela government meeting – to set up “tripartite mechanisms between the country of origin, the country of asylum, and UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) to facilitate voluntary repatriation processes …”
The plan of action accompanying the declaration also includes the Caribbean. We should pay “special attention,” it says, “to the prevention of trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants…” We prefer to pay lip service.
And it speaks of the desirability of moving towards the creation of a Regional Consultative Mechanism (RCM) through structures possibly located within Caricom or the OECS. The RCM would strengthen cooperation among countries of origin, transit and destination of asylum-seekers and refugees, progressively establish asylum systems, formulate programmes that promote comprehensive durable solutions, and initiate measures to foster Caribbean coordination.
If our leaders have tackled any of this, I haven’t heard. They seem more intent on trying to deport Dave Cameron from the CWI than concerned about the nature, exponential growth, and effects of the region’s real migration challenges.
In summary, the Brazil plan says that the Caribbean’s priorities are “the establishment or strengthening of refugee status determination procedures, the enactment of legislation, and the adoption of specific policies in (the) area (of the international protection of refugees and asylum-seekers).” And it makes several broad-based recommendations, including the need – I hope some people are listening – for governments to work closely with the UNHCR and for the strengthening of national and regional civil society networks, academia included, to carry out research.
The governments of ten independent Caricom states – I repeat that TT was among them – participated in the Brasilia conference and accepted the declaration and plan of action by acclamation. So we’re on board, aren’t we? Three and a half years have passed. Have we been sailing well? Or are we, as so often, becalmed in a sea of unfamiliarity, or discomfort, with our international commitments?