Uruguayan nationals in areas that have taken in Syrian refugees are “outraged” with the “abuse” from Syrian families who demand the government provide them with more money and better jobs to feed their families.
Uruguay has taken in five Syrian refugee families–42 people–since 2014, most of whom have participated in protests against the Uruguayan government, demanding to leave. Uruguayans are beginning to take offense at the Syrians’ wholehearted rejection of their country, reports the Associated Press.
“What they are doing is offensive,” Monica Benítez, a resident of Juan Lacaze, a town that took in one Syrian family with 15 children, told the AP. Benítez explained her outrage as part of her personal experience as an immigrant, living in Spain for ten years with her husband during an economic crisis in Uruguay. “I wish Spain would have given me half of what Uruguay is giving them,” she lamented, saying she was “very bothered” by Syrians’ demands to leave the country.
Some locals tell the AP they are not upset with the Syrians, but with the Uruguayan government for accepting them despite being small and home to a difficult economy. “Uruguay isn’t in a financial position to be receiving refugees. … It was obvious they wouldn’t be comfortable here,” said Jennyfer Lopez, a student. Another resident notes it appeared that the Syrian families were told they would be traveling to a wealthy nation.
“It is true that Uruguay is an expensive country,” Secretary of Human Rights Javier Miranda told Argentine newspaper La Nación, but he added that the Syrians were being treated the same as Uruguayans: “the work opportunities they get are the same ones the majority of Uruguayans do.”
The Syrian refugees who spoke with the Associated Press say they like the Uruguayan people but fear they cannot feed their large families. “I like Uruguay. I like Uruguayan families. My young children all go to school here … but food is very expensive. How can I feed 15 children?” said Merhi Alshebli, whose family settled in Juan Lacaze. Alshebli also complains that the government does not allow him to keep livestock on his property.
Alshebli is seeking to leave the country to travel anywhere else, and made international headlines this month after attacking Uruguayan public officials and dousing himself in gasoline when told Uruguay cannot dictate to other countries whether to offer visas.
A month earlier, the five Syrian families accepted in 2014 staged a sit-in in the capital, Montevideo, demanded to be sent back to the Middle East, asserting that their broken Spanish was not enough to find jobs and their monthly stipend did not help with feeding their children. The mayor of Montevideo recently praised the Syrian refugee program anyway, urging “all Latin American capitals to accept refugees.”
Uruguay was forced to partially halt its refugee program in February, following a sharp spike in domestic violence incidents that forced public officials to deem the acceptance of male Syrian refugees into the country as a culturally incompatible venture. A month later, the government stopped the program altogether, though it has since reconsidered and expects to take in a new group of families in the near future.
Uruguay will have a larger role in confronting the crisis in Syria at the United Nations, as well, as it has just been elected a temporary member of the Security Council, something Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa has called “a great recognition for our country.” President Tabaré Vázquez, Nin Novoa revealed, is expected to personally partake in some Security Council meetings.