Situation of migrants in Latin America within the COVID-19 context

May 19, 2020

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

The most developed countries in Latin America have usually shown signs of kinship towards the rest of the countries in the region, opening their borders to those who have decided to migrate. The composition of migrants by country varies, and so does the social acceptance of these groups. For instance, Chile has a high number of Haitian, Peruvian and Colombian migrants, whilst Costa Rica hosts mostly migrants from Nicaragua and, in recent years, Colombia has received the largest flow of Venezuelan migrants. Nonetheless, episodes of discrimination and xenophobia have been on the rise and, therefore, the United Nations decided to launch the Global Compact for Migration that most countries in the region signed (although outside Latin America, it is worth mentioning that the United States rejected it). The Compact aims at contributing to a better positioning of migrants in their countries of destination (e.g. only 11 of the 29 countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region punish acts of discrimination).

Within the migratory process that began in Venezuela in the second decade of the 21st century, an estimated 4.4 million migrants have settled in different parts of the world, accounting for the largest migration flow in such a short time, in the history of Latin America. The greatest number of migrants headed for Colombia, where the last official register of migrants included approximately 1,800,000 people coming from Venezuela.

Often times migrants are stigmatized by the local community. Based on a study carried out by Oxfam in the period February-July 2019, in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, 70% of survey respondents support greater restrictions at border crossings with Venezuela, and 50% assume that women will end up as sex workers. In turn, the newcomers are viewed as a threat to job stability, and 70% of respondents stated that migrants take jobs away from the locals and depress wages because they are willing to accept lower salaries. In Peru, 63% of respondents believe immigrants take more than what they can contribute to the local economy and, according to a study by the University of Medellín, 80% of respondents link migrants to higher crime and prostitution rates.

The economic activity halt, due to the COVID-19 crisis that entails social distancing and an indefinite shutdown of restaurants, hotels and shops, has increased the vulnerability of migrants in the different countries of the region (according to a study by Adecco in Argentina, in 2019, 60% of Venezuelan migrants were working in one of these three areas). Many migrants in the above areas as well as in other sectors of the informal economy work for a wage that they use for paying the daily rent of their rooms and meeting their needs. The lockdown of the economy has rendered many migrants jobless, with no income, as most of them do not receive any cash transfers from the State. In Argentina, for instance, state policies that can alleviate the effects of the crisis on the most vulnerable, such as the Emergency Family Income and the Universal Child Allowance, exclude all migrants who have not had legal residence in the country for at least two years. Fortunately, Argentina has a universal and public health system that migrants can access, but this does not exempt them from facing episodes of discrimination in their attempt to obtain health care. The absence of a state that supports migrants on equal grounds to its citizens is also evident in Peru, where foreigners who do not have an employment contract cannot access the health system. The situation in the United States is also complex, where eligibility to access the public health system requires at least five years of residence in the country. Most likely, this phenomenon, combined with language and cultural barriers, is the reason why migrants in the country see doctors very sporadically, and their health expenses are very low compared to those of an American citizen.

Furthermore, the United States has migrant detention centers on the border with Mexico. In 2018, 396,448 people remained in the custody of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and there was a daily average of 42,188 detained peopled during that year. In 2019, there were daily records of 2,000 children detained by the US Border Patrol and separated from their parents.

In Colombia, the COVID-19 crisis has led many Venezuelans to come together in public parks waiting for some sort of assistance vis-à-vis the loss of their jobs, even considering the possibility of returning to Venezuela. This gave rise to an increase in acts of xenophobia, since Colombian citizens view the many groups of migrants in the parks as a threat to their health. Economic austerity and the increase in xenophobia and discrimination have led thousands of other migrants (an estimated flow of 600 people a day since April) to decide on returning to Venezuela, where health services are devastated and the shortage of food and essential medication is an everyday matter. In turn, vulnerability to contagion has increased along the border, since the Venezuelan government places those who cross the border into quarantine, in extremely precarious and overcrowded conditions.

Finally, in the midst of so much vulnerability, it is clear that restrictions on accessing the health system and the lack of state transfers place Latino migrants in Latin America and the United States in a more precarious situation than that of the natives. The way in which governments decide to respond to this global health emergency is crucial to ensuring a minimum level of well-being for these groups, which also contribute to the development of the country in which they live.

According to a World Bank report, 57% of Venezuelan migrants in Peru have completed their secondary education, and half of them have a university degree. In the same report, it is estimated that migrants accounted for 8% of the increase in the country’s GDP in 2019, and that, if migrant labor resources are appropriately harnessed, productivity gains could exceed 3%.

In another World Bank report, it was estimated that the cost faced by the Colombian government to meet the needs of migrants within the current context ranges from 0.2% to 0.4% of GDP. Fortunately, the Colombian government has signaled its wish to cooperate with the situation and has requested a loan of USD 11 billion from the International Monetary Fund to meet the needs of the population vis-à-vis COVID-19, including migrants.

Indeed, many Latin American countries have a structurally precarious health and government aid system, although the current situation should lead them to designing fully-fledged permanent state policies, regardless of the nationality and legal status of the beneficiaries. Whether guided by humanitarian ethics or exacerbated nationalism, inclusive policy decisions made in this context lead to protecting native citizens. Disregarding the needs of migrant communities with respect to health, housing, food, safety and hygiene is today more than ever an attack on the health and well-being of the countries’ citizens.

* The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily represent the World Bank views.