Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Do Countries Have Enough Capacity to Handle Migrants?

A group of Venezuelan migrants in Cali, Colombia. // Photo: City of Cali. A group of Venezuelan migrants in Cali, Colombia. // Photo: City of Cali.

This year, massive flows of migrants have fled economic and political tumult at home for other countries in the Americas. Some 2.3 million Venezuelans have poured out of their country, according to the United Nations, fleeing to Colombia, Brazil and elsewhere. In Costa Rica, a backlog of more than 15,000 Nicaraguans await processing, joining 8,000 already there following street violence and state repression that has shut down entire sectors of the economy in recent months. Northern triangle countries in Central America also continue to see their citizens leave for the United States, despite heated rhetoric over immigration. What is the state of intra-regional migration in the Americas, and will migrant flows pose significant political and security risks for the region’s governments in the months ahead? How much capacity, and tolerance, do countries of the hemisphere have for accepting migrants, and where are tensions and hot spots most likely to flare up? Can international organizations and foreign aid provide meaningful relief, considering the scale of the problems?

Laura Chinchilla Miranda, former president of Costa Rica: “In recent years, the Northern Triangle countries have suffered the scourge of criminal violence, which, combined with high levels of poverty, has resulted in a massive exodus of people. The number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in the United States has increased by 25 percent between 2007 and 2015, and the UNHCR estimates that irregular displacement from Mexico to the United States has reached around half a million people per year. Moving south, other migration crises have resulted from political, economic and social collapse in Venezuela and Nicaragua, at the hands of despotic governments. According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of people exiting Venezuela grew to 1.6 million in 2017 from 700,000 in 2015, most of them going to South American countries, particularly Colombia. The grave situation in Nicaragua, in turn, exponentially spiked the number of requests for asylum in the neighboring country of Costa Rica, with some 23,000 requests in the first three months since the crisis started. On top of these diasporas’ considerable humanitarian effects, it is worth taking note of a worrying change in the reception of migrants in countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica, where groups hostile toward migrants can be seen, as well as a tightening of immigration policy toward Venezuela in countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Chile. For this reason, a response is urgent—beyond what each receiving country can do, the international community must respond with resources and, above all, actions that contribute to solving the very causes of such tragic migration: In the case of the Northern Triangle, failed policies with regard to organized crime and drug trafficking, and in Venezuela and Nicaragua, a delayed and erratic reaction by the international community in the face of flagrant human rights violations.”

Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue:“Migration in the Americas has dramatically increased to 38 million people in 2018 as compared to 23 million in 2000. Growth since 2010 is directly associated to political fragility and instability in Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela, totaling 13 million people (36 percent of all Latin American migration). This mobility has been neglected, if not ignored, for more than a decade by Western Hemisphere countries, despite warnings from international groups. The risks to the region are significant insofar as instability is forcing people out and causing hardship on at least 13 million families, affecting their well-being and the personal safety of 50 million people. The consequences of mobility include political and security risks. As more people leave, options for political improvement diminish because many of those migrating constituted a backbone for political change. Moreover, politically motivated migration is accompanied with economic insecurity and crisis in several countries. More than half of migrants are seeking short-term economic relief, posing a policy problem and burden on migration management in countries including Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador. This situation is more cumbersome because few countries have historically had a migrant host tradition, and thus it creates a difficult space for policy solutions. All these patterns are creating widespread tensions, from extreme xenophobia to border disputes to public intolerance, which will lead not to expulsion but rather to groups’ vulnerability and marginalization. So far, the international community should focus on three main options: first, seek solutions on how to best integrate these migrants, thinking realistically that their lives are now part of the host country. Second, differentiate strategies for refugee relief and migrant integration, with the former as a group that would return in the short term. Third, assess the magnitude of these flows for the next three years and risk prevention methods to reduce these flows, particularly through a concerted hemisphere-wide view of conflict resolution. The consequences and solutions to the economic and political deterioration of these countries’ conditions need to be at the top of the Western Hemisphere’s agenda.”

Tomás Páez Bravo, coordinator of the global project for the Venezuelan diaspora at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and international representative at the Hannah Arendt Observatory: “Nicaragua and Venezuela are facing huge human displacement throughout the region. Poverty, political persecution, repression and humanitarian tragedy destroying regional trade and employment in these countries helps explain the current migratory flow, which is bound to grow quickly in the coming months as the increase in refugee asylum applications indicates. Those who migrate come from impoverished and malnourished societies with high levels of unemployment. They travel with children who have no access to vaccines, which poses an epidemiological regional risk, and they set up camp in areas, regions and countries that are not prepared to receive or manage the immense exodus. This has repercussions on politics and labor, can generate xenophobic responses and potentially become a source of conflict. Many governments have implemented migratory controls that are insufficient and won’t impede the growth of migration. The region, including the Lima Group, has denounced the humanitarian crisis and the destruction of democracy in Venezuela, and, aware of the cause of migration into their countries, has designed policies for integration. Neighbor countries are not economically nor institutionally prepared for the exodus. For this reason, international cooperation and multilateral solutions, including better coordination between governments and private sectors, are indispensable for alleviating the current situation. A new perspective toward the diaspora is needed; what today is seen as a problem may become part of the solution. Migration boosts consumption and investment, and encourages progress through remittances that will help grow regional trade. Diasporas help reduce global poverty.”

Ronal Rodríguez, political scientist and professor and researcher in the Venezuela Observatory at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá:“In less than two years, Colombia has approximately 1.5 million migrants, including returning Colombians, Colombian-Venezuelans and Venezuelans, and more than 600,000 in transit to countries further south. It is the most important migration phenomenon in the Western Hemisphere, in terms of volume and time, and the main consequences of the collapse of the Venezuelan state at the hands of the chavista regime. Colombia, a country with economic gaps and a faulty social system, now has to face a population that is arriving in great need of humanitarian assistance. It is worth highlighting that the institutional response has been characterized by great solidarity with migrants, as well as by the attention and self-management of civil society to face the challenges of such a phenomenon, particularly by religious organizations and NGOs. The country’s highly informal economy—more than 50 percent is informal—has absorbed the incoming low-skilled labor, thus generating survival opportunities in the short term and becoming a source of income for migrants. Colombia has taken the route of solidarity with migrants in a long road that is just beginning, but it faces the difficulties of a phenomenon that will last for a long time.”

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