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August 29, 2023

Seema Iyer

Integration is a Win-Win for Refugees and Mexico

Seema D. Iyer, PhD, is the Senior Director of The Hive, USA for UNHCR’s innovation lab. Last month, she traveled to Mexico and witnessed firsthand how the Local Integration Program and support from USA for UNHCR are making a direct impact on the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and the local community in Mexico.

The smiling face of UNHCR Mexico staffer Paola Monroy welcomed our team when we landed in San Luis Potosi, an hour-long flight north from Mexico City. That small glimpse of Paola’s welcoming nature was just the beginning of the power of human connection we witnessed from so many during our visit to see the Local Integration Program in Mexico.

Paola Monroy (left) meets with a refugee at a community meeting in Leon, Mexico

Paola Monroy (left) meets with a refugee at a community meeting in Leon, Mexico

Local integration into host communities has long been recognized by UNHCR as one of the most durable solutions for refugees who have been forced to flee their homes, leaving their support system behind. Since 2016, UNHCR in Mexico has been building strong relationships with organizations and people who are eager to welcome and integrate refugees into their city’s workforce, childcare services and broader civic life.

We heard from so many refugees about how UNHCR has become an important source of support. “I don’t have family here in Mexico; UNHCR is my family,” shared Erika, a refugee from Venezuela now living safely and working at an automotive factory in Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico.

I want to share a few inspiring examples of integration that I witnessed in Mexico and how these human connections are making a real impact for refugees and for the Mexican communities who are welcoming them.

Integrating into the workforce

One of the most important ways refugees are integrating into Mexico is by gaining access to jobs. The newly-built Continental factory in Aguascalientes was one of several in the area, all searching for employees. “We are practically fighting for workers in this region,” said Jesus Guillermo Espinosa, Aguascalientes Plant Director. “And we are striving to be an inclusive workplace for all.” He lauded his human resources team for connecting with UNHCR to exchange job information and coordinate the hiring of refugees coming to the area. On the day we visited, Continental was in the process of welcoming three refugee workers with plans to hire more in the future.

Staff at Continental in Mexico

For companies like Continental to hire refugees, several policies and regulations need to be in place. At both the national and state levels, UNHCR is building strong relationships to advocate and build awareness for refugees. In San Luis Potosi, the Secretary of Labor and Social Security, Néstor Eduardo Garza Alvarez, is working to eliminate barriers that arise for refugees and employers during the hiring process. Alvarez explained that integrating refugees is about economic development and security. “Closing the doors to opportunity opens up the risk to desperate activity,” he shared. His office is working with UNHCR to create practical solutions for integrating refugees into the workforce. For example, Alvarez is working with a local lending institution to open up credit lines for refugee-led businesses to thrive in the area.

Supporting local Mexican childcare services

Many refugee families have the same needs as their neighboring Mexican families; UNHCR’s resources help refugees and support local communities throughout Mexico. Women-led households make up a significant proportion of refugee homes, and as women gain access to work, UNHCR helps them secure childcare.

Paola, who first welcomed us to Mexico, has made it her mission to support these women and children. She built a relationship with Casas de Cuidad Diario, an innovative network of independent, women caregivers who run before and after-school services out of their homes. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as more children were staying home, the network was at risk of shutting down. But, thanks to support from UNHCR, they were able to access resources for both refugee children as well as local children, which enabled the women entrepreneurs to continue running their childcare facilities.

childrens center sign in Mexico

Beyond the stories: Evidence-based findings

As Senior Director of The Hive at USA for UNHCR, my team and I strive to use data to help inform better decisions that have real results for refugees. During my visit, I witnessed firsthand how the impact of UNHCR’s Local Integration Program is both personal and systemic. More than 30,000 households have participated in the program since 2019, and more than 500 companies across the country are part of the network for employing refugees.

Florian Hoepfner, Head of Durable Solutions for UNHCR Mexico, explains that building a body of evidence-based research to support the work and ensure effective implementation is critical.

USA for UNHCR is playing a key role in supporting research that is documenting the efficacy of the program. With financial support from USA for UNHCR, Georgetown University Professors Elizabeth Ferris and Katharine M. Donato led a team of researchers to analyze UNHCR’s data and interview individuals who have participated in the Local Integration Program. Their research indicates that the Local Integration Program is moving Mexico from a “transitional country” — one where refugees and asylum seekers pass through on their way to other countries — to a “destination country” — one where refugees and asylum seekers will seek refuge with hopes to build a safer future for their families.

This change all starts with the power of human connection. Witnessing the work of my colleagues in Mexico firsthand was inspiring and gives me hope that refugees rebuilding their lives in Mexico will do so with support, dignity and a real chance for a safer, brighter future.

How to help…

The Local Integration Program is supported by compassionate USA for UNHCR donors like you. The initiative gives refugees the opportunity to plant roots, rebuild and continue forward with their lives. By becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor, you can directly support the work of The Local Integration Program and give more displaced families the opportunity to thrive.