Leave, stay or return home? Recent (intra-regional) migration trends in Latin America in the light of the COVID-19 crisis

The phenomenon of migration is nothing new to the peoples of Latin America. Indeed, at some point, many had considered (or do so at this moment) the option of moving or relocating to another neighbouring country, the ?upper? part of the continent, or even overseas, either because of the feeling of marginalization, social exclusion, non-sympathy with the reigning political power, lacking job opportunities or escaping poverty. Yet the unexpected outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and the crisis following in its footsteps might well exacerbated the volume of this phenomenon, causing that an ever-increasing number of people will be crossing borders within the continent ? at times under severe circumstances. In the following article, I am going to assess the most recent migration trends in Latin America in the light of the pandemic. More specifically, I am going to analyse the intra-regional migration among the Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) countries.

Before 2019

There are a number of drivers influencing Latin American migration. It not only varies in terms of size and general characteristics, but also along more of a temporal and a spatial axis. ?Historically speaking, the migratory movements of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean have been closely related to the development of societies in these regions and, more specifically, to economic, social and political imbalances.?

The dynamics of migration across the region changes along the temporal axis. In fact, at the end of the 20th century, most emigrants were attempting to run away from violent conflicts and unfavourable political conditions. (For example, see the cases of Nicaragua and Guatemala during the 1990s.) But as the effects of globalization and the huge gap between individual circumstances became more and more visible and sensible, especially regarding the free flow of information, the differences in income distribution and those in the well-being of individuals, seeking better overall living conditions became a prevailing force. (And in the context of Latin America, the subjective interpretation of individual well-being should rather be understood in contrast with poverty.) Of course, violence and conflict did not disappear from among the reasons to leave ? the highest numbers related were recorded in Colombia and in El Salvador. Also, natural disasters – most commonly hurricanes – can also be forceful factors in terms of displacement, as the latest examples of Honduras, Cuba, Brazil and Guatemala show.

Speaking of the spatial axis of migration across the continent, as a general, long-standing trend, a mass number of immigrants aiming to reach and cross over the borders of the United States is identifiable. (It is also called as the ?northward? migrant movement.) This, in part, is attributable to and can be explained through the huge development gap between the Northern and the Southern parts of the American continent. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, there is a trend or direction, also known as the ?South-North migration flows?. Another ?extra-regional? form of migration can be observed towards some European countries as well (mostly in the direction of Spain), which has effect even today. Although extra-regional migration in the opposite direction, towards Latin America has seen some decline over the last couple of years ? at least from the European continent.

There is a migration trend working in a narrower regional sense, which falls into the scope of the so-called intra-regional migration. Even though historically Argentina has been the primary destination for this type of migration, as time passed by, this role was taken over by other countries of the region, making fundamental changes in the proportions of migration-shares. In addition, intraregional movements gained significance over the past years, due to the dissemination of communication means, lower transportation costs and regional integration mechanism facilitating human mobility. Bearing in mind the tendency of European immigration policies becoming more and more demanding, it could have also contributed to.

A very recent example and, at the same time, one of the greatest migration flows of the 21st century is attributable to the ongoing political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The dire economic circumstances and the lack of access to basic social needs (for example healthcare and food) forced millions of Venezuelans to leave their homeland, many of whom (around 1.7 million by July 2021) sought asylum in the neighbouring Colombia. (Although, there used to be a reverse trend between the two countries before the Venezuelan crisis, many Colombians who had previously fled Venezuela returned home as the situation worsened.) Many others found shelter in other Andean countries (Peru and Ecuador), in Brazil, Chile, or, although initially only in smaller proportions, in some Caribbean countries. This massive exodus of Venezuelan migrants caused a surge in the numbers of LAC-migration between the years of 2017 and 2019, compared to the average of 2015-2016. (This has primarily been deduced from the total number of residence permits granted to regular migrants.) The number of Venezuelans in emigration is around 6 million by now, with over 80 percent staying in the region. These numbers made governmental response inevitable, especially as more than half of them lack regular migrant status. Several countries adopted regularization programmes to provide some sort of protection and to cope with the burdensome situation.

Also, and in part due to the same reason (massive influx of Venezuelans), a general shift in regional patterns can be identified. Some countries, that traditionally were not among the biggest host countries, appreciated disproportionately, meaning that their relative shares of migrants and roles as host countries gained weight compared to traditionally more attractive, larger countries. This includes Colombia and Peru, with each having gained around 10% of migrants compared to their previous years, respectively. Overall, currently it seems that among the most popular destinations of the region are Argentine, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Mexico. Another emerging trend, ?migrant caravans?, that goes back to 2018, refers to a change that can be identified in the mode migrants move from A to B within the region. Crossing exotic rain forests on foot to reach borders has always been around, but gathering into groups of this size (thousands of migrants) is a relatively new challenge, especially in Central America.

The exacerbating impact of the pandemic

?COVID-19 has exacted a devastating toll in Latin America and the Caribbean: a region with eight percent of the world?s population has accounted for 30 percent of global deaths.? Plus, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region amidst of ?one of the largest human displacements in its recent history?, aggravating some of the existing challenges (for example, ongoing economic crises) as well as adding new ones (including figuring out the national vaccination strategies). Nevertheless, more on the individual-level, it had an obvious negative effect on the future prospects for many: several sectors had to let go of workers to cut expenses, causing unemployment, which, considering the relatively low levels of the mobility of labour, tightened the financial options one might had. (As it is already known, a particularly affected sector was tourism, on which not only several countries of the region relied heavily, but also employed several immigrant workers.) Another reason, that could be considered as a motivation for many is the restrictions on individual freedom imposed by the government.

Although these phenomena are not region-specific, rather world-wide, in Latin American countries, given the already existing problems (e. g. precarious social protection systems, unfavourable economic conditions) and the cumulation of such unfortunate events could have been a stronger motivational factor on both ends: it affected the plans of those who considered emigration as well as those who considered returning home.

Contrary to what would have been expectable, there was a decline in total residence permits granted in year 2019: it fell from over 2 million in 2018 to 1.41 million by 2019. As the results of the IOM survey demonstrates, over 80% of people who had planned to leave during the course of the previous year would re-consider the trip and postpone it until the travel restrictions are eased. This could serve as a potential conformation and explanation why the decline occurred in the first place. What we must see here is the fact that these migration plans are only postponed, but not cancelled, meaning that embarking on the journey after the sanitary crisis passed is not off the table at all.

And the pandemic did not spare those that already left. Some face financial difficulties even in their respective host countries, many of them noticed a decrease in their salaries, lost their jobs, or became unable to send the usual remittances back home. This did not only cause a loss of support for the family members that stayed at home, but also contributed to the already growing anxiety and hopelessness. (Even though it would feel logical to assume that the number of remittances in general dropped, the world-wide trend has shown the opposite; especially when the transfer was started from the U.S. or Europe.) Some of these migrants also had to make the difficult decision of returning to their countries of origin. Such cases ?included Bolivian and Peruvian migrants from Chile and Paraguayan migrants from Brazil?. Given the circumstances ? not just during the pandemic, but the already existing difficulties of travelling on foot in Latin America ? many migrants found themselves ?being stranded in border cities in poor sanitary conditions?. In addition, those who managed to return successfully, did not just get away with it without facing other types of challenges (incl. legal status, unemployment, and xenophobia). Since many others remained on the move, certain countries, such as Guyana and Peru, decided to include displaced people in their vaccination strategies.

Additionally, with extra-regional migration towards the more developed countries becoming even more restrictive and difficult (in terms of for example, fulfilling the requirements attached to the obtainment of visas), such destinations lost popularity among Latin Americans. This, especially with the increasing costs of international travel, again, added weight to considerations of relocating within the same region.

?The trend in total migration to LAC countries is nonetheless  upward,  especially  with  respect  to  intra-regional migration.? The same goes for the Central American and Caribbean subregion, which traditionally experience relatively low levels of intraregional migration, but is facing an increasing tendency since 1990. (In part, this was driven by the same reasons, such as subregional initiatives enhancing free movement and the exodus of Venezuelan migrants continent-wide.)

Consequences and prospects

This changing environment, of course, had several consequences. First, those who has no other options and, thus, opt for leaving face even higher risks than before. Many of them, that are seeking job opportunities ? according to the survey of the IOM ? concerned about being deceived or exploited. In spite of these risks, most, that has no source of income, would say ?yes? to such an opportunity, even if the terms of contract were not perfectly clear or if they are not properly informed about the job in question. The risk, especially for those that are more vulnerable, ?may be aggravated due to the problems caused by COVID-19. These types of deceptions or fraudulent recruiting practices may potentially be connected to migrant smuggling and/or lead to trafficking in persons.? Another potential issue is the proneness to working in the informal sector, and, as such, the probability of not being adequately and sufficiently protected by neither migration, nor labour laws. (These risks are even higher if one resides illegally in a country ? for obvious reasons.)

Second, since many migrants are in desperate need of employment and income, they are more likely to take the job for less than locals would. And given their vulnerable situation, they constitute ?sitting targets? for criminal organizations, making the possibility of them being lured into the illegal economy more realistic. This increases the civil antipathy towards taking migrants in and can result in a rather anti-immigration stance (stereotyping, or, in more drastic case, in xenophobia) from the part of the general public. A very recent example is that of Chile in September 2021. The tension culminated in a march of thousands of Chileans holding anti-immigration slogans, setting the tents and belongings of Venezuelan migrants on fire.

Third, migration trends have also altered the related national governmental policies. Several of them had to make adjustments to their administrative mechanisms to ensure non-nationals? protection and access to social rights during the crisis (but the level of legal clarity and inclusion varies from country-to-country, and, at least in some, it depends on multiple factors, such as the migration status of individuals). In most countries, some sort of non-contributory social transfer programmes already existed before the pandemic hit, and ? with the exception of Mexico ? new emergency schemes were also established. Plus, we should keep in mind that the above-mentioned internal conflicts and increasingly expressed public dissatisfaction can lead to increasing pressure on the governments to tighten immigration policies.

IOs, NGOs or the civil society only play a role to a varying extent, which could mean a complimentary contribution to the state-led programs or a supplementary role as well (in most cases, it depends on the extent of the existing activity of the state in question). The presence of these actors can be particularly important in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, since they can provide additional health care services that might would not be available for a certain group of migrants otherwise, because ? for instance ? they do not hold a regular migrant status in the given host country.

The fourth aspect is human security. Due to the restrictions on movement, those who leave are now put at a higher risk as they might have to find alternative ways to get into a country. In turn, these alternative border routes (or ?trochas?) oppose several dangers on the physical well-being and even on the lives of illegal border crossers, as in many cases people cross rivers, jungles, high mountains and deserts on foot, or even the ocean in barely seaworthy boats. One of the most perilous routes is the Darien Gap, passed through by an increasing number of children year by year. Often smugglers are paid a high amount of money to accompany them along these routes, but, so it seems, that is not a guarantee of ?safe passage? until reaching the final destination. (Just a couple of days ago, dozens went missing when an allegedly human smuggling boat capsized off Florida?s coast, setting a recent example of how risky such operations are. But unfortunately, there are countless other examples.) And, if that would not been enough hazard, numerous criminal gangs hinder the journey, posing other threats (attacks, sexual assault, robbery) on the safety already vulnerable migrants, not to mention that of minors.

Taking a short detour, we must acknowledge that movements across and originating from the LAC countries also put pressure on the United States, although not to the same extent as northward migration does. This is particularly accurate in case of the Caribbean countries, where northward migration remains a significant trend. In the first half of the fiscal year 2021, approximately 226.000 migrants arrived at the U.S. border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Jointly with the Mexican Government, the U.S. responded with bolstered immigration enforcement (e. g. prevention of transit, increased deportation, surge in officers at the border). Whichever approach is in use, it is up to the governments at all times. Keeping in mind that the immigration policies during Democratic administrations usually appear to be more relaxed, it was not surprising at all that U.S. immigration has seen a sharp rise after Biden?s inauguration. In this regard, again, the high-risk routes and the rise in the number of unaccompanied minors give us many reasons for worries. Putting these direct regional struggles into the context of great power competition, the chances of the U.S. needing to take up a greater engagement are high. 


In conclusion, it is clear that the situation of the already vulnerable have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we know little about what is yet to come. ?The pandemic has cut off mobility pathways, stranded migrants, destroyed jobs and income, and pushed millions of migrants and vulnerable populations into poverty. However, it has not put an end to migration.? As we have seen, there was some decrease in general, mainly attributable to the restrictions imposed on travel due to the pandemic, but the plans of many are only postponed but not cancelled, thus they might re-consider the option of moving when restrictions are lifted. In addition, the unequal access to vaccines has resulted in an uneven economic recovery, implying, again, the possibility of increasing migration pressures.

Regarding those who have already left, it is visible that measures of inclusion and protection vary across countries, hence we cannot identify a single trend in this regard. The prospect of another wave of migration, thus, should be taken into account on a broader regional spectrum, nonetheless because it has already proven burdensome for the social systems, especially in those countries that are struggling with an increase in the in-flow of people for a longer period of time now. Regional integrations or forums can form a platform for reconciliation and coordination. Given the fact that more than one country is affected, expanding regional cooperation to the field of migration policy seems sensible. Indeed, this is not without precedent: in 2002 the MERCOSUR adopted the Agreement on Residence for Nationals of the States Parties of MERCOSUR to promote the free movement of people and advance the rights of migrants. The MERCOSUR residence permit is still one of the most important (subregional) mechanisms to date, but its relevance also varies between countries. Adopting one with an even wider regional scope could have the same potential in terms of ensuring the rights of people in exile, but we should not forget the effect that such agreements and initiatives previously had on migration trends.

Of course, we must see that during the ?recovery?, countries cannot afford letting go of their people, their skills, knowledge, purchasing power and so on, and thus, it would appear sensible to somehow encourage them to stay or to come back. But with limited resources to do so, there is not much to be done: unless they lock them in and force them to stay, the least they can do is to somehow guarantee, that their human rights as migrants will not be infringed abroad.


Written by: Boglárka Csont

Kiemelt kép forrása: flickr.com