In Uruguay, a backlash against Syrian refugee programs
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In Uruguay, a backlash against Syrian refugee programs

According to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the situation in Syria is the “worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that 3 million Syrian refugees have crossed into neighboring countries, which is believed to have a “devastating impact on the economies” of these nations who are unable to handle the flow of people. Meanwhile, there are another 6.5 million internally displaced persons within Syria itself.

The small nation of Uruguay has a population of just 3.4 million people, but under the presidency of José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, Uruguay tried to do its part to aid the crisis. In 2014, the country accepted 120 refugees to be resettled, and agreed to help them with healthcare, Spanish lessons, and schooling for the children.

The move was widely praised by the United Nations and another 80 refugees were projected to arrive in the country in early 2015.

This commitment though has become controversial, and is currently stalled.

In late 2014, Uruguay’s presidential election saw Tabaré Vázquez elected to serve a second non-consecutive term (he was president from 2005-2010).

Although he hails from the same political party as Mujica, the Frente Amplio, Vázquez is reevaluating the nation’s policies on accepting refugees. The Syrians appear to be having trouble adjusting to life in Uruguay and therefore, the decision to take in more refugees is increasingly contentious.

Uruguayan media have also reported a possibility of domestic violence within the population of resettled refugees, reports which Mujica spoke about in dismayed tones.

The controversies surrounding refugees is compounded by the Mujica administration’s similar decision to accept six former detainees from the United States prison at Guantánamo Bay in 2014. That initiative, although more divisive from the beginning, has recently been widely criticized as those men have struggled to adjust to life in Uruguay. The country has already decisively concluded it will not accept any more detainees, although more then 100 still remain in the detention center.

Mujica, the man who instituted both these policies, is striking back—at least at the accusations that he mistakenly accepted the Syrian refugees. He absolved himself of any blame for their struggles by claiming he had asked the United Nations that the refugees be farmers so that they could more easily adjust to life in Uruguay, where agriculture is still the dominate economic engine. Mujica then complained that “they did not send me a single farmworker.”

Mujica left office in March amid high praise for his social policies and humanitarianism. Reporters extolling Mujica frequently commended his decision to take in the former detainees and Syrian refugees. Now both of these decisions are receiving widespread backlash, despite the fact that Mujica took in less than 5 percent of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners and only a miniscule fraction of the refugees who are facing terrible crises in the Middle East after fleeing Syria.

If even this small liberal country cannot make it through a year without recoiling and reevaluating both of these policies, it paints an ominous picture for the possibility of a global commitment to truly solving these seemingly intractable problems.

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