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Lessons from Latin America on Organized Crime and Refugees

How Latin America responds to people fleeing criminal violence will provide insights into an emerging aspect of global forced migration. David Cantor of the Refugee Law Initiative outlines some lessons learned and questions raised by displacement in Latin America.

Written by David James Cantor Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A resident of the Comuna 13 neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia on October 13, 2017.JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP/Getty Images

Organized crime is driving forced displacement across Latin America, creating profound tensions for countries and humanitarian practitioners in the region.

How Latin America copes with these challenges has global implications.

This region may be particularly affected, but there are several other countries around the world that are technically at peace, yet organized crime is creating significant forced displacement. Many other countries are embroiled in armed conflicts that have bred under their auspice serious organized criminal violence and control.

For all these reasons, organized crime is an important trend in the future dynamics of forced migration.

Latin America’s steps towards addressing forced migration caused by organized crime provide important insights for institutions and agencies working on this issue around the world. Here are some the conceptual, legal and operational lessons from Latin America:

  1. The challenges are not the same in every country. Different situations require different responses. To take one obvious example, in some countries, the scale and/or impact of forced migration may require a humanitarian response whereas in others more subtle measures will be sufficient. Where is the tipping point? How is this to be identified? What measures are appropriate in each scenario? As I discussed in the first part of this article, Colombia and Mexico have responded to internally displaced persons (IDPs) through the framework of reparations for victims of conflict. We should examine where this is effective and not. When should countries offer a specific response for internal displacement, and where can other approaches, including reparations, be built upon?
  1. While the impact of organized crime is similar to an armed conflict in some countries, there are differences as well as similarities in the operating context for humanitarian organizations working with IDPs. Careful analysis is required. What can be borrowed from assistance and protection practices developed in conflict zones and applied to these situations? What must be learned afresh? How do you relate to the government? Can interlocution with organized criminal actors take place and, if so, how?
  2. Avoid an overly legalistic and formalist approach. For instance, it may be that the over-complicated nature of the Colombian IDP framework has not helped its rapid and effective implementation, even though Colombia is a relatively well-resourced, upper-middle income nation. Responses to internal displacement in the region should resist legalism and staid formalism and concentrate on developing more pragmatic and flexible measures that can actually be implemented in practice.
  3. Do not underestimate the importance of development initiatives for IDPs. A lack of local development is sometimes behind the prevalence of organized crime in some areas. Moreover, trying to provide IDPs with assistance and protection based on their individual self-identification or registration as an IDP may run into difficulties in areas under the control of organized criminal gangs. Providing development to whole communities offers more scope for not only solutions, but also protection and assistance. Such interventions may also help promote local and national government interest in IDP issues.
  4. Existing international legal frameworks for refugees and other persons in need of international protection are adequate for people fleeing acute criminal violence. No new framework is required in international law. At the same time, the mind-set of governments, or at least those officials working on refugee protection, needs to change gear and recognize that forced migration dynamics in Latin America have changed dramatically. Less legal formalism based on outdated Cold War assumptions, and greater flexibility in applying the law that exists, are necessary and sufficient to ensure that refugee law marches in line with current realities.

Read the first part of this series: Latin America at Forefront of Emerging Trend in Global Displacement

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any particular institution or the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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