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Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

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1978 - 1980

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Representative, UNHCR, Lima, Peru 1978-1980

• Right-wing dictatorships take power in various latin american countries.
• Right-wing military coup in Chile forced tens of thousands of leftist Chileans and those suspected of leftwing sympathies to flee into neighbouring countries.
• Trend repeated in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru creating a massive case load of refugees across Latin America.
• Responsibilities of providing protection, relief assistance, repatriation and resettlement major challenges for UNHCR.
• Asylees and refugees resettled mainly in Europe.

Prevailing Situation in Peru in late Seventies

1. On 11th September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and seized power in Chile. This ushered in a wave of right-wing dictatorships soon to spread to Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. In Chile the change suddenly placed the lives of tens of thousands of Chileans in danger. All the leftist elites including politicians lawyers, academics, journalists and other professions became suspect and were hunted down. The repressive rule marked by harassment, arrests, torture and assassinations was extended to labour leaders and workers as well as students. Many of these targeted victims were compelled to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, Europe and North America. They needed UNHCR's protection.

2. By a cruel twist of history, Chile had previously under Allende offered asylum to refugees fleeing other dictatorships in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. Chile which had by then acceded under Allende to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocal guaranteeing international protection to refugees, viewed the gesture as Chile's commitment to compliance with the international protection instruments. These asylees found themselves suddenly in danger and looked to UNHCR for protection.

3. The UNHCR High Commissioner, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, telegraphed Pinochet reminding him of his country's international obligations. A UNHCR team under the overall responsibility of its Regional Office in Buenos Aires, was sent to Santiago to attend to the urgent needs of the asylees. They were swiftly resettled mainly in Europe. Although several Chileans were lucky to find asylum in Europe, thousands were compelled to cross into neighbouring countries as refugees. Conditions for them were not better then what they had left behind. A large number went to Argentina where Peron's populist regime welcomed them with open arms. Brazil and Peru, although signatories to the international refugee instruments, reluctantly accepted several thousands, partly because they were military governments whose right-wing views were close to Pinochet's. These dictators demanded and obtained that the refugees remain under the sole protection of UNHCR until such time that countries could be found outside the region willing to accept them. Thus, UNHCR was compelled to open offices in Rio de Janeiro and Lima to protect the refugees and organize their resettlement in third countries.

4. The refugee situation in Latin America was further compounded when on 24th Mach 1976 a military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla seized power in Argentina. The infamous "Dirty War" that followed forced thousands of Argentines pursued even beyond their borders, to go into exile. They, like the Chileans before them, felt threatened wherever they went in Latin America. At about that time, whereas asylum countries in Europe had shown great generosity in the early days, the pool of visas for refugees began to dwindle and the laudable spirit of welcome petered out. This problem was most sharply felt in Peru were the Chilean refugees lacking any form of productive activities and losing hope of resuming normal life turned to UNHCR to vent their anger and frustration. They occupied the UNHCR Office and protested their case.

Achievements

5. Sergio Vieira de Mello was re-assigned by the High Commissioner to head the Lima Office which was then occupied by refugees. At the age of thirty, Sergio was propably the youngest representative in UNHCR history. His first task was to enter into dialogue with the refugees and negotiate their withdrawal from the office. It was not an easy task but he summoned his now well developed skills at diplomacy and negotiations to bring the matter to a satisfactory solution for the government, the refugees as well as for UNHCR. The organization was able to resume its normal functions and the Lima Office was upgraded to report directly to the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva.

6. Looking back to his assignment in Peru, Sergio treasured two things very dearly. Having lived part of the political turmoil in the country, it was a great source of joy and happiness for him to see the end of the military regime and witness 850,000 indigenous Peruvians vote in a democratic election!
Secondly for the first time, he had the experience of dealing with individual refugee cases. According to him, "I knew them by their names, their smiles, their songs and their tears".

 

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