The Helping Clause of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration

Venezuelan refugees need international protection. One of the instruments that can be of use includes a definition of “refugees’ that could apply to our fellow nationals.

Photo: retrieved 

4 million people.

4 million people and counting.

That’s the number of people displaced as a result of the Venezuelan political, social, economic and humanitarian crisis, one that’s affecting the most vulnerable. 

Two characteristics of this unprecedented exodus in the region, now two years into its start: it’s intensifying and it has no clear end in sight. As we wait for regime change, and envision a transition that will require a lot of work to restore democratic institutions and access to rights, no one can deny that the flows of displaced population will continue.  

In the meantime, we’re called to protect displaced Venezuelans. 

The “refugee” category is within international law and there are treaties that bind the international community with the responsibility to protect those who do not have their rights guaranteed in their country of origin; there are two instruments that all Venezuelans and allies of Venezuelan migrants and refugees need to know. One is global and binding, the 1951 International Convention on Refugees, and the other one is regional and non-binding, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration.

The definition that fits

The global legally binding instrument (the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol), establishes that “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his country due to persecution, war or violence.” Under this definition, a refugee “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or belonging to a particular social group.” Venezuelans who have left the country because of their political activism, for protesting against the regime, for having been political prisoners or about to become one, they all would fit within this definition, and would be able to get political asylum in their receiving countries (if that particular country has ratified the convention, as most Latin American countries have). 

But what happens to the majority of diaspora Venezuelans who have not been political activists but are still affected by the crisis, and have no other choice but to flee?

Well, the Interamerican system has the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which expands the definition of refugees, has actually been signed by ten member countries of the Organization of American States, and has been incorporated into the national legislation of 15 countries of the region.

The Declaration expands the refugee definition to include “people who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by widespread violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed the public order.” 

Considering the precarious situation people face in Venezuela, as documented in the recent OAS Working Group Report to Address the Regional Crisis Caused by Venezuela’s Migrant and Refugee Flows, it’s arguable that this massive flow of Venezuelan people could be protected under this framework.

Both the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have stated the need to guarantee protection for this displaced population under the Cartagena declaration. Some countries have granted asylum under these terms (Mexico is already granting asylum requests to Venezuelans using Cartagena as the basis,) but it would be great if other countries also did.

Why haven’t countries of the region, and specifically those that signed the Cartagena Declaration, granted refugee status under this normative instrument? 

Why haven’t countries of the region, and specifically those that signed the Cartagena Declaration, granted refugee status under this normative instrument? 

The costs of solidarity

The reasons may be legal, including the convenience of granting temporary protected status on an ad hoc basis as a more agile response to the quick flows, but they most likely are financial. Under the declaration, there is a broader range of options for granting refugee status, and it’d mean that all 4 million will be granted this status, meaning that all 4 million Venezuelans would be eligible for health, housing, jobs, and all protections under the same conditions as nationals of the receiving country. And, as I usually say, solidarity has a cost. Accessing all these rights requires funding from the receiving countries, whose economies are already strained and facing deficits. How can they cover the costs of food, shelter and access to medical services for 4 million other people when they should also be taking care of their own?

We’re getting closer to the moment when the international community, the donor community and specifically, the countries of the region, need to have a serious discussion on protecting Venezuelans under both the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, as both the OAS Secretary General and the OAS Working Group Report on the Venezuelan Migrant and Refugee Crisis called for an International Refugee Day.

For that, countries need to clearly quantify the financial cost of international protection and continue prompting the international donor community to help out. We should already be thinking of calling for an international solidarity conference to support Venezuelans and their receiving countries, a mechanism proposed by the Global Compact on Refugees. We have a duty to protect them.

* The views are personal and do not represent the position of the OAS.