Uruguay’s Selective Amnesia on Migration

President Tabaré Vázquez has withdrawn Uruguay’s warm welcome for Syrian refugees amid public pressure. (Flickr)

Immigration is a fundamental part of Uruguay’s history, but many seem to have forgotten where we started as a country.

The first Europeans to arrive in what we now know as Uruguay, back in 1516, were essentially the crew of navigator and explorer Juan Diaz de Solís.

The arrival of the first Iberian settlers was a trickle that soon become a wave. Between 1860 and 1920, some 600,000 immigrants arrived in Uruguay, mainly from Spain and Italy. To put this in perspective, the current population of Uruguay is only some 3.3 million individuals. Beyond the statistics are thousands of families and cultural influences that made us who we are today.

It was this multiculturalism that allowed Uruguay to become one of the region’s most liberal countries: it was secular by 1918 and women could vote in 1917. Unfortunately, it seems as though minds aren’t so open when immigrants don’t come from Western Europe.

In October 2014, the widely popular former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, received a group of 42 Syrian refugees, mostly children, as part of a pioneering program to help families fleeing war, extreme poverty, and homelessness. It was, undoubtedly, a compassionate thing to do. 
Another 72 refugees were expected to arrive last February, but it never happened.

Instead, the process of resettlement has been held up as Uruguayan public opinion becomes starkly polarized. Those who object to the refugee program say Syrians have a “very different culture,” and therefore their insertion into Uruguayan society would be “totally artificial.”

The painful irony is that these people have forgotten that there is no such thing as a single “Uruguayan culture.” Everything that we are was brought over, or imposed during colonial times, from somewhere else.

A History Defined by Migration

Even prior to the Spanish conquest, our indigenous community, the Charrúa, were small, and they were cruelly persecuted and massacred once Uruguay achieved independence. As such, very little in our society is indigenous to Uruguayan territory.

Moreover, many Uruguayans themselves have become immigrants themselves in recent times: during our 1973-1985 dictatorship and as a result of the 2002 economic crisis.

The welcome given by the United States and Europe, particularly Sweden, during the the dictatorship era proved a lifeline for political exiles fleeing state-sponsored terrorism. Those suffering political persecution had to depend on the charity of far-flung nations, because dictatorships and clandestine detention centers abounded in Uruguay’s neighbors during that period. An estimated 310,000 people are thought to have emigrated during this dark period in our history.

The nefarious political and economic crisis that struck Argentina in 2001 affected Uruguay so badly that by 2003, 49 percent of the population reported having a relative overseas. Emigration in search of a job, any job, was so common that the saying became widespread: “the last one to go, turn off the lights.”

However, the current resistance to receiving Syrian refugees have reached such levels that Amnesty International has had to intervene, urging Uruguay to remember that once we were the ones in need of asylum.

There is one particular ‘argument’ against receiving Syrian refugees that deserves to be debunked as a laughable instance of hypocrisy. Many Uruguayans argue that Islam propagates a sexist culture and encourages the mistreatment of women.

Even if this were true for the faith as a whole, we have to ask whether Uruguay is much better in terms of gender equality. In Uruguay there are 68 reports of domestic violence per day. In 2012, 38 women were killed in their own homes. In 2013, at least 27 women died as a result of domestic abuse. I wonder if those who are so quick to condemn Islam’s alleged sexism have done anything to improve women’s rights at home.

Closing the Gates

Of course, such anti-immigrant sentiments don’t reflect the feelings of the Uruguayan society as a whole. Many individuals, NGOs, and companies, both public and private, have made tremendous efforts to help Syrian refugees in Uruguay. A large number of citizens (among them former President Mujica) went to the airport to welcome them when they arrived.

But prejudice seems to have triumphed. Recently re-elected President Tabaré Vázquez, who belongs to Mujica’s Broad Front party, decided to suspend the refugee program due to the controversy, stranding the 72 asylum seekers who were due to arrive in February.

The fraught situation got worse with the arrival of six former prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in December: four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian. Sixty percent of Uruguayans opposed this humanitarian gesture, according to various polls, believing the new arrivals to be a threat to national security and a drain on public resources.

Yet as we all know, these are human beings who never faced a trial, and yet suffered from illegal imprisonment and torture in one of the many US  “black sites” around the world. The weakness of the charges against them are the exact reason why they were held contrary to all international and national legal norms.

Uruguay needs to re-read its history, and a good dose of humility and honesty wouldn’t do any harm either. Our great-grandparents and grandparents faced all kinds of odds when they arrived in the continent. Most of them didn’t even speak Spanish. They had to start from scratch.

But we did it. We worked, we prospered. We understood then that absolutely everyone is entitled to happiness, freedom, and security. We understood then that freedom of movement is a human right. Now, the depressing reality is that many seem to understand nothing.

For more on the case for open borders, see OpenBorders.info.

Edited by Laurie Blair.

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