Latin America has long had a reputation for offering asylum to those fleeing persecution. The Cities of Solidarity programme provides a concrete mechanism for providing not only asylum but full local integration.
When the first group of Palestinian refugees arrived in April 2008 in La Calera, a city of 60,000 inhabitants in central Chile, it was a great event. The central square was filled with people as the people of Calera gave their new neighbours a warm and emotional reception. This was a deeply moving experience for the refugees who, just three days previously, had been living in the extreme conditions of Al Tanf - a camp in the desert on the border between Syria and Iraq.
La Calera is one of the many cities in the 'southern cone' of Latin America that has joined the self-sufficiency and integration programme known as 'Ciudades Solidarias' (Cities of Solidarity) under the Mexico Plan of Action.1 Municipal governments - such as La Calera - and UNHCR commit to a cooperation framework to ensure international protection, local integration and assistance for asylum seekers.
The municipality accepts responsibility for identifying the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, evaluating the conditions in which they find themselves in their territory and establishing plans of action to address their needs. The municipal authorities appoint staff specifically to support their local integration through social programmes such as family welfare payments, emergency housing plans, food policy plans, support for small businesses and integration into the education system.
"Collaboration between the Municipality of Santiago and the Vicaría de Pastoral Social [the social welfare agency of the Archdiocese of Santiago]," says Veronica Vargas, the Vicaria's coordinator, "has led to a programme of community action in Yungay district which is having a significant impact socially for the refugees who live in this popular area of the Chilean capital. Not only are public programmes of action successfully addressing the specific needs of the refugees but we are also seeing all types of cultural and educational community projects, which have encouraged the spontaneous coming together of the refugee population and local residents. This is very important if refugees are to take the first steps towards integration in our country."
Particular attention is given to the inclusion in municipal school programmes of child and adolescent asylum seekers and refugees (especially when unaccompanied or separated from their families). Similarly, immediate assistance is given to women considered to be at risk. Continuity, monitoring and the integrated nature of interventions are promoted through a committee made up of various departments of the municipal government, UNHCR and its operating partners, and other institutions involved in pursuing durable solutions for refugees.
Generally, the agreements between UNHCR and the municipal authorities under the Cities of Solidarity programme are ratified by the municipal council and become public policies that remain in force through any changes in public administration.
The importance of these agreements is not limited to refugee access to state social programmes on an equal footing with nationals. The signing of these agreements takes place at public events with media coverage. This provides visibility and has helped to create a more positive and open attitude to refugees. It has also allowed many refugees to establish networks within the community and direct relationships with public officials in the various services. This in turn has enabled refugees to go through the administrative procedures necessary to obtain documentation and apply for subsidies and to take an active role in finding employment or housing.
Innovative framework for solidarity
Agreements with municipalities make explicit reference to the Mexico Plan of Action and to the Cities of Solidarity programme. …