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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-07-2020 15:55

A refugee crisis is the last thing Latin America needs

Latin America is already confronting a public health calamity, an unprecedented economic collapse and incipient social unrest. The last thing it needs is a refugee crisis, as well.

Just when it seems the lot of Venezuelans could get no worse, trust President Nicolás Maduro to show that the bottom is lower still. Earlier this month, Maduro dispatched troops to the Colombian border. The emergency? Tens of thousands of Venezuelans who had fled the dystopic Bolivarian republic and then been slammed by coronavirus and the economic shutdown abroad were now desperate to make their way back home. “Biological weapons,” Maduro called them, absurdly blaming unwilling prodigal Venezuelans for the country’s spiking contagion.

Venezuela’s returnees are the most flagrant face of one of the region’s least noted emergencies: the plight of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who escaped dead-end lives in their native lands and now, amid disease and lockdowns, find they are unwanted by their neighbours as well.

Forget for a moment the US border wall and crowded detention centres along the Rio Grande; the flow of people between Latin American nations has soared in recent years. The United Nations estimates that some 10 million Latin Americans currently live in another country in the region. Economist Manuel Orozco, an expert on migration and remittances for the Inter-American Dialogue, argues in a forthcoming study that the total could be as high as 13 million, double the number from 2000.

Intraregional migration surged after the global recession in 2008, when rich nations tightened their borders. It rose again after 2010 as worsening violence, drug-related crime and political upheaval drove waves of families from at least eight Latin American and Caribbean nations to seek foreign refuge, often in the country next door. Peru and Brazil were among the five countries with the highest number of asylum applications in 2019.

Consider Nicaragua, where authoritarian Daniel Ortega has met popular unrest with brutal repression, chasing thousands over the border. In the first eight months of 2018, Costa Rica saw its foreign-born population rise to 27,000, with another 25,000 seeking formal refugee status.

The upside of this regional exodus was a spike in homebound dollars, as enterprising migrants rebuilt their lives abroad and shared the wealth with the loved ones they left behind. In a June study, Orozco concluded that 10 percent of the US$17 billion that Latin Americans remitted last year was earned in other Latin American countries.

Another report shows that Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Paraguay netted 21 percent of their expatriate transfers in 2017 from within the region. Indeed, Bolivia and Paraguay captured more migrant dollars from neighbouring nations than from the United States that year, while intraregional remittances in Bolivia, Colombia and Nicaragua outpaced those from Spain.

Venezuelans, again, have set the pace, with migrants sending back on average anywhere from US$40 (from Colombia) to US$214 (from Panama) at a time, up to a dozen times a year.

The coronavirus outbreak now threatens this vital stream of regional largesse, just as it exposes how ill-prepared host countries are to manage the gathering migratory disruption. Consider that more than two-thirds of Venezuelans in Colombia lack legal immigrant status and just a quarter of them have only temporary permits.

Doubling back

It’s unclear how many of Latin America’s internal migrants are doubling back, but relief workers and border authorities are overwhelmed. An estimated 70,000 Venezuelans had returned as of early July, with tens of thousands more on the way, according to the United Nations. The multiple-agency relief effort known as Response for Venezuelans launched to contain the crisis was budgeted at US$1.41 billion; as of July 24, it had raised only US$248 million.

Venezuelans are not alone. Paraguayans are returning from Argentina. Peruvians are trying to leave Chile, whose government has also flown struggling Haitians back home. Nicaraguans are packing up in Costa Rica and Panama. The United Nations also reports that the pandemic has spurred a “new pattern of internal migration,” with tens of thousands of families in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru quitting the cities, where infection rates are rising, for the countryside.

These newcomers performed basic, sometimes crucial, services in their host countries, from construction to care for the elderly. Armies of motorcycle deliverymen have kept Argentines fed and supplied during lockdowns. Cuban and Peruvian nurses and physicians are among the first responders of the Covid-19 crisis. Yet these guest workers have seen their welcomes vanish with their livelihoods. “Many are irregular migrants, without access to health services or unemployment benefits. University graduates are unable to validate their diplomas,” said Vanina Modolo, regional migration analyst for the United Nations-affiliated International Organisation for Migration, in Buenos Aires.

Even some of the most generous official relief efforts fall short: Argentina’s cash benefit to help the most vulnerable through the economic shutdown includes only those foreigners with two years of proven residency.

Discrimination and xenophobia are on the rise, as migrants become easy targets for local populations facing hardships. At a time when fear of catching Covid-19 is high, migrants are also easily — and unfairly — stigmatised as public health threats in their adopted countries. Nor, as Venezuelans and Nicaraguans have found, are they always welcome back with open arms.

The way home is also fraught with obstacles and danger. As Latin America joined the global movement to restrict mobility and seal borders, returnees often had to find their way along unsafe routes and clandestine crossings, prey to criminal networks and traffickers.

Perhaps it’s a lot to ask of nations already overwhelmed by unprecedented national crises to also care for strangers in peril. Yet to protect migrants who have provided so many societies with vital service and labor is also to safeguard the native population. Latin America already confronts a public health calamity, an unprecedented economic collapse and incipient social unrest. The last thing it needs is a refugee crisis, as well.

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Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for 'Newsweek' and is the author of 'The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.'

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