Latin America hosts around 18.4 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. That’s about 20% of the global total, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
But when it comes to Global North-led narratives of migration, Latin America is primarily viewed as a region that refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants come from and travel through en route to the United States, not as a place where forcibly displaced people seek safety and live out their lives.
This focus on northward movement neglects the experiences of people displaced within the region, ensuring we are overlooked. Even within Latin America, there is often a lack of awareness and understanding about why people are forced to leave their homes and the realities we face after the fact.
From my personal experience, it seems like there is an assumption that it should be easy for Latin American refugees to integrate into other countries in the region because we share a language and cultural similarities.
It’s true that this is one reason why many refugees prefer to stay here rather than travel north. But this does not mean that being forced to leave your home is easy or that there aren’t barriers to integration. Countries in Latin America have different accents, customs, and histories. And many countries in the region have similar economic, security, health, and educational problems to the ones refugees have been forced to escape.
Like in other parts of the world, refugees are often viewed as unwelcome outsiders. When refugees try to enrol in schools and find jobs, people from host communities often feel like something that belongs to them is being taken away because resources and opportunities for nationals are already scarce.
The fact that refugees in Latin America are frequently overlooked in global and regional narratives about migration means that host communities don’t understand that we were forced to leave our homes and can’t go back.
It also means that national and international systems supporting refugee protection and integration in the region aren’t given the resources and don’t have the capacity to support people seeking protection. This makes it even harder for refugees to settle into new countries and exacerbates tensions with host communities.
Like millions of other refugees around the world, I did not choose to leave my home in Colombia. I was only 12 years old in 2007 when my family crossed the border into neighbouring Ecuador to escape conflict.
I know the lives of several of my relatives were in direct danger, and this meant that the rest of my family – including my parents – also was not safe. But to this day, there are details that I don’t know. I was a child, and the decision to leave was made by the adults in my life. For my older relatives, that time period is full of painful memories that they do not like to discuss.
After reaching Ecuador, it took my family two years to be granted refugee status. Even then, the status had to be re-evaluated one year later, with no guarantee that it would be renewed. Also, because my family fled Colombia in a hurry, we did not have time to carry many important documents with us – including educational certificates. As a result, it took two years to prove what grade I was supposed to attend in the Ecuadorian education system.
“We received a minimal amount of support from humanitarian organisations the first couple of months we were in Ecuador, but after that we were largely on our own.”
During this time, I struggled to continue my education because most schools wouldn’t let me enrol without my certificates. When we finally found a school that allowed me to attend, it was far away from our home, and I was only able to audit classes. If my family and I were not so determined, I easily could have fallen behind in my education, which is something that happens to many refugees in Ecuador.
These challenges were difficult to navigate and understand as a young adolescent. I went from being the best student in my class in Colombia to struggling to adapt. Neither the school nor the teachers were interested or trained in how to support someone like me. I felt like I had to figure everything out on my own.
The integration process was also not easy for my parents, who were trying to figure out how to earn a living while navigating the complicated procedures required to obtain legal status for our family. We received a minimal amount of support from humanitarian organisations the first couple of months we were in Ecuador, but after that we were largely on our own.
On top of everything, there were numerous, mundane daily reminders that we were living far from home and unlikely to be able to return any time soon because of ongoing safety concerns.
Refugee voices must be at the centre
What I experienced motivated me to bring refugee voices to national and global platforms so that our opinions and ideas would be taken into account when formulating policies that impact our lives.
In 2015, I was one of 40 refugees selected to participate in national consultations convened by UNHCR and other organisations that aimed to motivate young refugees to take action to advocate for themselves. Meeting the other participants, I learned that so many of them had faced similar problems to the ones I had experienced – as well as other challenges I couldn’t even imagine. For the first time, I also felt the collective power refugees have to support each other and develop solutions to the challenges we face.
“It is critical that refugee voices are not just included in national and international fora to make the discussions appear inclusive only to be ignored when it comes time to make actual decisions.”
Afterwards, I was selected to be a founding member of UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council, which allowed me to contribute recommendations to the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. One of the main points we argued at the time was that refugees should not be looked at as beneficiaries but as active participants in coming up with sustainable solutions to the challenges we face.
I continue to be a firm believer in this idea as a first step towards making sure forcibly displaced people have the support and resources we need to be able to live safe, stable, and prosperous lives. Much lip service has been paid to it in recent years, and some progress has been made on bringing refugee voices into the room. But more is needed.
It is critical that refugee voices are not just included in national and international fora to make the discussions appear inclusive only to be ignored when it comes time to make actual decisions. Refugee voices must be at the centre of conversations about the issues and policies that have a direct impact on our lives.
This is particularly important in Latin America, where refugees have long been overlooked because narratives about migration in the region have been led by the interests of the Global North rather than the voices of those seeking protection.
Many refugees in the region are prepared to speak up, and we have first-hand experience of what does and does not work when it comes to the policies that impact our lives. If our voices are taken into account, I believe we will see significant progress in the global refugee protection system’s ability to support and assist refugees.
Edited by Moulid Hujale and Eric Reidy.