Latin America joins effort to stem refugee crisis

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Montevideo (AFP) - As Europe struggles to deal with hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing bloody conflicts in Syria and beyond, far-away Latin America is increasingly stepping up pledges to take in refugees.

Far removed from the turmoil driving the exodus from the Middle East, Latin America has so far resettled a relatively small handful of people.

But as the influx reaches crisis levels in Europe, a string of Latin American countries are vowing to do more.

In the past two days, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pledged to welcome Syrian refugees with "open arms," Chile's Michelle Bachelet declared her country's "doors (are) open," and Panama's Juan Carlos Varela said his nation had a "big heart" and would gladly take in fleeing Syrians and Iraqis.

Even Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a staunch ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, vowed to welcome 20,000 Syrians -- the only one of the recent resettlement pledges to give a hard number.

Brazil, the largest Latin American country, has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other -- more than 2,000 since the rebellion against Assad's regime began in 2011.

More than four million people have fled Syria since the war began, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Another 7.6 million have been internally displaced.

These people and others fleeing conflicts in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere are increasingly undertaking dangerous treks overland or across the Mediterranean to reach the European Union, triggering a crisis of historic proportions.

More than 380,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea this year, UNHCR said Tuesday.

The death of thousands -- including a three-year-old Kurdish boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach last week -- has led to pleas for the rest of the world to do more.

- 'Not suited for refugees' -

Other Latin American countries already have programs specifically for Syrian refugees.

Argentina, which has a large Syrian community, has taken in 90 refugees since rolling out a program last year to provide asylum to family members of Syrian-Argentines.

Uruguay launched a program last year that will ultimately resettle 117 Syrians from refugee camps in Lebanon, mainly families with small children.

But the results are not always heart-warming.

Five Syrian families with more than 30 children plopped their suitcases down outside the Uruguayan president's offices this week, demanding to be sent elsewhere.

Speaking through an interpreter, they said they are culturally isolated and struggling to survive on the small stipend they receive in Uruguay.

"We didn't flee the war to die here in poverty," 36-year-old Maher el-Dis told AFP. "This is not a place suited for refugees."

"We want to live with (our) identity and (our) values," Maraa el-Chibli, a 55-year-old father of 15, said through tears.

One of the families already tried leaving for Turkey, but they were detained because they did not have visas. After spending 20 days stranded in the international transit area at the Istanbul airport, they were sent back to South America.

Uruguayan authorities say the resettlement program provides a baseline monthly allowance of about $1,000 for two years, plus up to $900 in reimbursements for expenses such as clothing and transportation for one year.

The refugees also receive free health care and education.

- Domestic politics? -

Even in Brazil, which has led the way in the region on the refugee crisis, the program is "pretty chaotic," said political analyst Fernando Branco.

"There's no organized policy for taking in refugees, there's no dedicated ministry," he said.

There are meanwhile shades of domestic and regional politics in some Latin American leaders' pronouncements on the crisis.

Wading into the refugee issue likely gave both Brazil's Rousseff and Chile's Bachelet a welcome break from corruption scandals that have caused their popularity ratings to plummet.

The pledge from Venezuela's Maduro meanwhile comes as his socialist government faces an outcry over its mass deportation of Colombian nationals -- a border crisis that erupted last month and has been fueled by the massive smuggling of heavily subsidized goods out of oil-rich but shortage-racked Venezuela.

More than 20,000 Colombians -- many of whom were themselves refugees from the five-decade conflict in their home country -- have fled or been deported from Venezuela since the crisis began, the UN said Tuesday.

Maduro's pledge to take in 20,000 Syrians is mainly about the Venezuelan government "trying to cover up the damage provoked by the mass deportations," said international relations specialist Elsa Cardozo in Caracas.

"It is trying to cast itself as a great defender of refugee rights," she said.

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