Cooperation on refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean – The ‘Cartagena process’ and South–South approaches.

The 1984 Cartagena Declaration represents one of the earliest articulations of a Latin American regional approach to refugees and is one of the longest-running and most successful exemplars of such regional cooperation in the world.  In this post, an abridged version of his chapter in the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, Prof. David Cantor traces the history, framework and uniqueness of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, a framework adopted by Latin America,  and later the Caribbean, to respond to large scale displacement resulting from political violence and conflicts in Central America. The blog describes the distinctive components of this model of ‘South-South’ humanitarian cooperation on refugees (a theme we have been critically exploring in our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ blog series) and it’s framework that was, and continues to be, designed and implemented in response to ‘regional’ and ‘local’ contexts. The 1984 Cartagena Declaration uses a multilateral mechanism that is located outside established international forums to promote humanitarian and regional cooperation. It also has an inbuilt flexibility that allows the framework to respond to new refugee contexts as they emerge. However, although the Declaration is distinctly independent of global forums it is also likely to draw on forms of cooperation derived in the global North.  

If you find this piece of interest please see our ‘Thinking Through the Global South’ series, or visit our ‘Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations’ launch event podcast, where you can hear co-authors of the Handbook discuss their chapters.  You can also access a recommended reading list at the end of this piece. 

Cooperation on refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean – The ‘Cartagena process’ and South–South approaches.

By David James Cantor, Director of the Refugee Law Initiative; Professor of Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.


Perhaps the most influential humanitarian cooperation on refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean is the Cartagena framework, which is adopted and regularly refined by the governments of this region. Since the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, these governments have met on each ten-year anniversary to review the new challenges facing refugees in the region and to define a common framework of prin­ciples, plans and programmes in response.

The Cartagena framework results from substantive cooperation among a wide range of states in the global South, a concept we have been exploring through the Southern Responses to Displacement project in our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ series. Both the framework and the long-standing, structured, state-based and multilateral process from which it results are pertinent to the study of South–South approaches since they represent an unparalleled example of regional state-based humanitarian cooperation in the refugee field. This blog outlines distinctive components of this unique model of humanitarian cooperation on refugees and as such contributes to the key themes and aims of the Southern Responses to Displacement research project to identify ‘diverse models of Southern-led responses to conflict-induced displacement’ and ‘examine the (un)official motivations, nature and implications of Southern-led responses.’  

Early Latin American engagement with ‘refugees’

Latin American states were relative latecomers to the international regime created for refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War and continued to rely on the regional and constitutional law framework of political asylum for small scale movements of political asylees. (Cantor 2013).  The Cartagena process began during the 1980s as the Cold War took hold in Latin America and as the en masse displacement surged in Central America (Cantor 2013) exposing govern­ments in Latin America to significant humanitarian and political challenges related to ‘refugees’.

From the 1980s, these governments began to develop a parallel Latin American framework for refugees. This has built on the global framework, which it is designed to complement, by creating additional elements pertinent to the ‘local’ context. (For more on themes of the ‘local’ see here, here and here) These developments evidence the contention among those states that the particularities of this region require certain additional elements. Efforts by governments to promote a regional approach began to consolidate around the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, the genesis of the Cartagena process.

Evolution of the Cartagena framework

The 1984 Cartagena Declaration represents one of the earliest articulations of a Latin American regional approach to refugees. However, commitments on refu­gee issues in the Contadura Act on Peace and Cooperation that it also endorses, largely invite adherence by participating states of origin and asylum to global refugee protection norms.

One conclusion of the Act with a more strongly ‘local’ flavour concerns the refugee definition which refers specifically to the ‘experience gained from massive flows of refugees in the Central American area’ and recommends participating states adopt a new refugee definition that reflects these circumstances. This definition has been incorporated into the national law of many Latin American states and represents a concrete example of SSC among Latin American states that has had an impact on the protection of refugees in this region up to the present day.

By the 20th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration in 2004, the vision of a regional approach to refugees was substantially more consolidated.  The 2004 Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action (MDPA) outlines three ‘durable solutions’ programmes as a response to two contem­porary priority situations: growing numbers of urban refugees; and large numbers of Colombians living in the border areas of neighbouring countries in need of international protection. Thus, the ‘solidarity cities’ programme pro­motes self-sufficient and local integration for urban refugees. The ‘borders of solidarity’ programme promotes a humanitarian response to Colombians living in border areas. The ‘solidarity resettle­ment’ programme is envisaged as a tool to mitigate the humanitarian situation in countries of the region hosting a large number of Latin American refugees, referring implicitly to Colombians. These regional durable solutions programmes, conceived by the MDPA as a form of ‘international coop­eration, in keeping with the principles of solidarity and responsibility-sharing’, continue to this day.

Cartagena process: a model for cooperation in the global South?

The Cartagena framework has been central to promoting the development of a regional approach to refugee protection among participating Latin American and Caribbean states. What then are the distinctive features that are joined together in the Cartagena process to make it such a unique model for humanitarian cooperation on refugee issues among countries in the global South?

Independent structure

One of the most distinctive structural features of the Cartagena process is that it is a multilateral mechanism located outside any established international forum. The Cartagena process transcends political and politicised forums to instead carve out an independent space dedicated solely to promoting a Latin American response to the humanitarian concerns of refugees.

Despite its independent character, the Cartagena process has attained a degree of permanence and stability that is rarely seen in other such processes, at least in the refugee field and remains an ongoing independent process with well-defined agreement and implementation points more than 30 years after its genesis with the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. It is notable that even the cooperation behind the famed 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action produced only a one-off agreement that was then implemented by the parties over a longer period of time.

Progressive development

Despite the incorporation of innovative legal elements in the ensuing framework, the Cartagena process retains an important degree of inbuilt flexibility that has allowed it to develop new programmes and other forms of cooperation to address new refugee challenges as they have emerged. It offers states the opportunity to meet every ten years to reassess the relevant refugee challenges in the region and facilitates a degree of progressive devel­opment in order to address an impressively wide range of themes pertinent to refugees that simultaneously builds on the foundations of earlier declarations. This has also involved a gradual geographical expansion of the Cartagena process to include the wider range of Latin American states and the Caribbean in its expanding regional vision, straddling sometimes stark political divides between these governments.

Substantive humanitarian content

At root, the approach of the Cartagena process is resolutely humanitarian. This is not to say that state concern with border controls or managing wider migration flows has never influenced the Cartagena process. However, in comparison with many other forums for state cooperation on refugees, the emphasis lies squarely on promoting humanitarian cooperation in the regional response to refugees.

The framework resulting from the Cartagena process reinforce a vision of cooperation within the region based on its specific ‘local’ considerations. It also forges a connection between participating states based on their collective mode of incorporation as a region in the global refugee regime. As such, the Cartagena framework shows that SSC in this field can revolve as much around implementing global norms as generating new visions or forms of humanitarian action derived from ‘local’ circumstances.

In much of the resulting framework, it is in fact difficult to differentiate between the local and the global. For instance, the key Cartagena concept of ‘solidarity’, which has specific Latin American connotations linked to regional heritage traditions of asylum is applied within a framework linked to global concepts, usually derived from the global North.  At least in the refugee context, this suggests that the content of any SSC is likely to have links to wider extra-regional concepts, including those derived from forms of cooperation in the global North.


Even such a broad-brush account begins to illustrate how the combination of this wide range of pertinent features gives the Cartagena process a unique and distinctive character among other inter-state processes of humanitarian cooperation on refugees. The framework, and the process behind it, bring together a number of important elements that have contributed to making it one of the longest-running and most successful exemplars of such regional cooperation in the world. This has likely been aided by the comparatively late arrival of Latin American and Caribbean states to exposure to major refugee problems and engagement with the global refu­gee regime. This indicates that the Cartagena process is indeed an intriguing and unique model for humanitarian cooperation among states in the global South.

At the same time, these large multilateral processes of cooperation between governments can be ‘messy’. As such, we need to ensure that our focus on the South– South elements of such processes does not overextend this analysis by ignoring other integrating concepts such as ‘region’ nor inadvertently obscure other important sets of relations between the interlocutors. For future studies in the field, this implies, first, promoting debate about the relative utility of concepts of ‘South–South’ cooperation and ‘regional’ cooperation, and the connections between the two.  Second, it requires shifting the focus to considering the consequences of the different interests, profiles and influence of states and other actors involved in these processes, rather than treating them as ‘Southern’. This includes recognising the role of ‘Northern’ states and other actors through time, not only as contributing to such processes but also learning and borrowing from them.


You can read the full version of this chapter in the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations.

If you find this piece of interest please see our ‘Thinking Through the Global South’ series, or visit our ‘Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations’ launch event podcast, where you can hear various authors of the Handbook review their chapters. You can also access a recommended reading list below:

Asai, N. (2019) Soka Gakkai International – Faith-Based Humanitarian Action During Large Scale Disaster

Carpi, E. (2019) Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

Carpi E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Carpi, E.  (2018) Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Looking Forward: Disasters at 40

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-Based Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N. (2019) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Wagner, A. C. (2019) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan


African Union, 2009. African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (‘Kampala Convention’), 22 October 2009. Available from: html [Accessed 24 February 2018].

Betts, A., 2009. Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Cantor, D.J., 2013. European Influence on Asylum Practices in Latin America: Accelerated Procedures in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. In: H. Lambert, J. McAdam, and M. Fullerton, M. (eds), The Global Reach of European Refugee Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71–98.

Cantor, D.J. and Trimiño, D., 2014. A Simple Solution to War Refugees? The Latin American Expanded Refugee Definition and its Relationship to IHL. In: D.J. Cantor and J.F. Durieux (eds), Refuge from Inhumanity? Refugee Protection and the Laws of War. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 204–224.

de Menezes, F.L., 2016. Utopia or Reality: Regional Cooperation in Latin America to Enhance the Protection of Refugees. Refugee Survey Quarterly 35(4), 122–141.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., 2015. South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East. Oxford: Routledge.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Pacitto, J., 2015. Writing the Other into Humanitarianism: A Conversation between ‘South-South’ and ‘Faith-based’ Humanitarianisms. In: Z. Sezgin and D. Dijkzeul (eds), The New Humanitarianisms in International Practice: Emerging Actors and Contested Principles. Oxford: Routledge, pp. 282–300.

Fischel de Andrade, J., 1998. Regional Policy Approaches and Harmonization: A Latin American Perspective. International Journal of Refugee Law 10(3), 389–409.

Fischel de Andrade, J., 2014. Forced Migration in South America. In: E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, G. Loescher, K. Long, and N. Sigona (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 651–664.

Franco, L. and Santistevan de Noriega, J., 2005. La contribución del proceso de Cartagena al desar­rollo del derecho internacional de refugiados en América Latina. In: UNHCR (ed.), Memoria del Vigésimo Aniversario de la Declaración de Cartagena sobre los Refugiados (1984–2004). San José: Editorama, pp. 81–138.

Gil-Bazo, M. and Nogueira, M.B.B., 2013. Asylum in the Practice of Latin American and African States. UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research, Research Paper 249.

Harley, T., 2014. Regional Cooperation and Refugee Protection in Latin America: A ‘South-South’ Approach. International Journal of Refugee Law 26(1), 22–57.

Hudson, M.O. (ed.), 1949. International Legislation Vol. 8 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington D.C. 404.

International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), 1989. Declaration and Concerted Plan of Action in Favour of Central American Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons. Refugee Survey Quarterly 8(4), 84–98.

Jubilut, L.L. and Pereira Carneiro, W., 2011. Resettlement in Solidarity: A New Regional Approach towards a More Humane Durable Solution. Refugee Survey Quarterly 30(3), 63–86.

Kalin, W., 2014. Internal Displacement. In E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, G. Loescher, K. Long, and N. Sigona (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 163–175.

Mathew, P. and Harley, T., 2016. Refugees, Regionalism and Responsibility. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

McEwan, C., 2009. Postcolonialism and Development. Abingdon: Routledge.

Oelgemöller, C., 2017. The Evolution of Migration Management in the Global North. London: Routledge.

Organisation of American States (OAS), 2014. General Assembly 3–5 June 2014. Available from: http://www.oas. org/en/sla/docs/ag06712e04.pdf [Accessed 24 February 2018].

Reed-Hurtado, M., 2013. The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees and the Protection of People Fleeing Armed Conflict and Other Situations of Violence in Latin America. UNHCR Legal and Protection Policy Research Series.

UNHCR (ed.), 1984. La Protección internacional de los refugiados en América Central, México y Panamá: Problemas jurídicos y humanitarios – Memorias del Coloquio en Cartagena de Indias 1983. UNHCR/Centro Regional de Estudios del Tercer Mundo/UNAC.

UNHCR (ed.), 1995. Memoria del Coloquio: 10 Años de la Declaración de Cartagena sobre Refugiados, San José, 5–7 Diciembre 1994. San José: IIDH/UNHCR.

UNHCR (ed.), 2005. Memoria del Vigésimo Aniversario de la Declaración de Cartagena sobre los Refugiados (1984–2004). Mexico City: Editorama.

UNHCR, 2010. Brasilia Declaration on the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons in the Americas, 11 November 2010. Available from: [accessed 24 February 2018].

UNHCR (ed.), 2015. Memorias del trigésimo aniversario de la Declaración de Cartagena sobre los refugiados. Quito: UNHCR.

UNHCR, 2016. San Jose Action Statement, 7 July 2016. Available from: scripts/doc.php?file=t3/fileadmin/Documentos/BDL/2016/1069 [Accessed 24 February 2018].

UNHCR/ACNUR, 2014. Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action: A Framework for Cooperation and Regional Solidarity to Strengthen the International Protection of Refugees, Displaced and Stateless Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean. 3 December 2014. Available from: php?file=fileadmin/Documentos/BDL/2014/9865 [Accessed 24 February 2018].

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (ed.), 1982. Asilo y Protección Internacional de Refugiados en América Latina. Mexico City: UNAM.

Featured image: A statue celebrating Arab-Cuban connections in Havana (Cuba). (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: