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The Latin American Migration Crisis

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the University of Edinburgh. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the author(s).

Latin America, home to more than 630 million people, faces a migration crisis that has forced thousands of migrants out of their countries. They escape political instability, violence, and economic hardship. Although overshadowed in media coverage by the European migration crisis, many countries in Latin America have a large proportion of their population beyond their frontiers. Venezuelans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans are the focus of this article.

The United States and Mexico receive thousands of migrants from the "Northern Triangle", composed by Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In the south, Venezuelans escape the economic crisis and political repression. Colombia receives a large proportion of its neighbour’s migrants and deepens its already existent crisis, as the country in the world with the most substantial amount of internally displaced people. Estimates are that between August 2017 and March 2018 around 250 000 Venezuelans entered Colombia, with an average of 3000 each day. In total, around 2,3 million Venezuelans have left their country, with 90% of them staying in Latin America.

In Venezuela violence, crime, lack of opportunities and hunger are reasons to migrate. The collapse of the Venezuelan economy poses the question of whether or not the distinction popular in academia between economic migrants and refugees applies in this case. For Holmes and Castañeda, in an article about the “European Refugee Crisis”, economic instability shows how in many cases the economy forces people to migrate. Nevertheless, Venezuela does not have an armed conflict like Syria, with clearer and more accepted definitions of “refugees”. Jozef Merkx, an officer from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, explained how the country does have dimensions of a refugee crisis but that the classification of people as refugees is not always clear due to the absence of an armed conflict.

Colombian Police leading Venezuelan migrants accross the border to Cúcuta, Colombia. By Policia Nacional de Colombia [CC BY-SA 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Colombian Police leading Venezuelan migrants across the border to Cúcuta, Colombia. Image by Policia Nacional de Colombia [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Central America faces a similar situation, with the countries of the “Northern Triangle” being amongst the most violent in the world. The situation has been categorised as a “humanitarian emergency” by aid organisations working in the region and has caused large numbers of people to migrate. Around 400 000 thousands migrants cross the Mexican border each year as part of their journey to reach the United States. Mexican authorities working within the USA funded programme “Plan Frontera Sur” (Southern Border Plan) have detained 495 590 between 2015 and March 2018. In 2015, a peak of deportations was reached with 181 163 migrants returned to their countries of origin. More recently, Lopez Obrador’s elected government has announced the creation of a new migration police force to control the borders and take part of a “regional effort to decrease poverty and violence”.

Similarly, the United States has hardened its own migration and deportation policy under the Donald Trump’s presidency for those that reach the US border. The controversial zero-tolerance policy has resulted in thousands of detained children being separated from their parents. The United Nations has condemned the situation and has stated that recent attempts by the Trump administration to resolve the issue remain insufficient. A U.N. report stated that the detention of children “severely hampers their development and in some cases may amount to torture”.

Countries in the Latin American region have employed different strategies to soften migration crises over the past few decades and have historically sustained a discourse of openness after 19th and 20th century immigration waves. In 1984, Latin American countries signed the Cartagena Declaration, which recognized the rights of the refugee and established state obligations to protect them.

In line with these ideals of solidarity, 13 Latin American nations met in Quito, Ecuador in September 2018 to discuss how to respond to the crisis and protect the rights of Venezuelans arriving at their territories. Colombia asked other nations to "share the burden" and to soften the documentation requirements. Ecuador and Peru had imposed the presentation of passports as a requirement. Ecuador had already dropped this measure, while Peru had started to implement a "refugee status" option. Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay allow Venezuelans entering by land to arrive only with their IDs. Chile has a "visa of democratic responsibility", that allows for one-year residence and access to work. This has enabled thousands of Venezuelans across the region to rebuild their lives in their new countries. In August of this year, Chiara Cardoletti, from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, praised Latin American nations for “opening its doors to people who are fleeing and need support”. She further stated that Latin America wanted to avoid “a migrant crisis like the one that is seen in Europe”.

Although there is thus clearly awareness amongst governments in the region that immigration in the region has to be addressed, there is not a clear consensus on how to address the issue. Robert Muggah, from the Igarape Institute and SecDev Group, claims that a successful response must prevent displacement rather that contain it. In his view, adequate support services must be established to support people in their country of origin, including for those who are deported back to their country. Additionally, he argues that naturalisation procedures must be more accessible for those that migrate. Joel Millman, from the International Organization for Migration, has stressed the need for further action. He considered “this difficult situation” (with emphasis to violent incidents in the border between Brazil and Venezuela) as an “early warning” of a situation that can build up to “a crisis moment that we’ve seen in other parts of the world”.

The forum will debate this in detail.



Central America

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