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Uruguay Relaunches Syrian Refugee Program After Domestic Abuse Leads to Shutdown

The small Latin American nation of Uruguay has agreed to accept 72 Syrian refugees from Lebanon, relaunching a program for relocating refugees and giving them dramatically new lives that was shut down in part due to the government’s apprehension that Syrians were culturally incompatible with Uruguayans.

Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa, who had previously announced the country would have to reassess the program before taking in more refugees, told reporters on Tuesday that the government “will not enter a humanitarian default” with its debt to the Syrian people, as Uruguay had previously vowed to take in 120 refugees. It had taken in 45 before deciding to shut the program down temporarily. “We know it obviously costs money. But I appeal to the sensibility and solidarity of Uruguayans to understand the drama being lived by these families — a true hell on Earth,” Novoa said.

Joining the 45 already settled in Uruguay, who arrived in October 2014, will be 72 others, making up seven families. They are expected to arrive in either November or December and to be relocated to Uruguay’s more rural areas. This, Novoa explained, would give them the best shot at establishing a peaceful, albeit impoverished, life. He noted that the families were “extremely poor” and likely to remain so because at least one family’s patriarch is illiterate. Novoa hoped the families would develop “microenterprises … plant a good crop, be autoconsumers … [and] the head of the family can have work.”

The program costs Uruguay $800,000 through the course of three years.

Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez halted the program, started by predecessor José Mujica, until the government could reassess the costs and benefits to the nation. In February, Uruguay announced that it would no longer take in male Syrian refugees due to a surge in domestic violence in the community, before halting the influx of refugees altogether in March.

Discussing the challenges facing Uruguayan society in assimilating Syrians, Human Rights Secretary Javier Miranda told the Uruguayan legislature how he had encountered child abuse among Syrians. In one instance, a man began beating his daughter for dragging sand into the house after visiting a beach, which he took as a sign that his daughter had disrobed while in public. “He punished her the way my dad punished me a bunch of years ago,” Miranda explained, adding, “In Uruguay today, we do not accept this for various good reasons, this physical punishment of children.” When confronted, the father asserted he was “the king of [his] home,” backing down when finally understanding that such acts could land him in jail in Uruguay.

Uruguay’s program to accept Syrian refugees is unique in Latin America, though nations like Colombia and Argentina have also taken in small numbers of refugees. Under Mujica’s tenure, Uruguay also accepted six former Guantánamo Bay detainees, two of whom most recently celebrated weddings with Uruguayan women, both Muslim converts.

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