Time for the Americas to step up (again) on migration
The L.A. Declaration on Migration and Protection, fashioned by 21 countries at last year’s Summit of the Americas, builds on a legacy of reception and opens the door to a new, more effective future for migration management
With the Biden Administration’s recent move to curtail asylum at the US-Mexico border, a historic opportunity to better manage migration in the Western Hemisphere may be slipping away. To ensure it doesn’t, countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean must again provide an example to the world of how to address the challenge of intensifying human mobility.
Doing so is both the right thing to do and necessary to protect our democracies from those who exploit migrants and migration for political gain and polarization.
Too often, migration in the Americas is viewed simplistically – migrants fleeing the region for the United States. The truth, however, is far more complex. Consider the nationalities at the center of so much attention given to the US-Mexico border in recent months – Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians. While it is true that until last month individuals from these three countries were arriving in numbers never before seen, those numbers mask a complex reality that, if disrupted, could intensify, not lessen, activity at the US-Mexico border.
Since the beginning of last decade, countries throughout the hemisphere have taken in millions from Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. All told, more than seven million Venezuelans and hundreds of thousands from each of the other two countries have fled in search of survival; nearly all have found a new home in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As president of Colombia, faced with never-before-seen levels of migration from Venezuela, I signed the first decree to regularize Venezuelans in Colombia, setting a precedent for my country’s welcoming response
The case of Venezuelans is most pronounced. Since 2015, of the more than seven million who have been forced to leave the country, 80 percent now live elsewhere in the region. The number of Venezuelans residing in the United States today, stands as only the seventh largest Venezuelan population living outside their home country.
Colombia has effectively absorbed nearly 2.5 million Venezuelans. As president of Colombia, faced with never-before-seen levels of migration from Venezuela, I signed the first decree to regularize Venezuelans in Colombia, setting a precedent for my country’s welcoming response. My successor then enacted an unprecedented 10-year temporary legal status that has already benefited more than 1 million. I acted out of a sense of solidarity and generosity, both of which have served my country well. Numerous countries in the region are similarly doing their part for Venezuelans and other people on the move. Caribbean countries have taken in Venezuelan migrants at per-capita levels that dwarf the number in the United States.
The reception of these populations has not always been smooth, nor without controversy and tension; systems have been improvised throughout; and Colombia and the region have undertaken this massive welcoming with next to no support from the international community. But the experiences across Latin America and the Caribbean stand as important examples of how opportunity can be found in unprecedented levels of human mobility and that host communities can effectively and humanely absorb newcomers.
The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, fashioned by 21 countries at last year’s Summit of the Americas, builds on this legacy of reception and opens the door to a new, more effective future for migration management in the Americas. The LA Declaration commits signatories to work in partnership to support host communities; promote alternative, legal pathways for migration; advance human migration management; and better coordinate emergency response to head off migration before it starts.
The LA Declaration’s implementation, however, is imperiled by a hard-to-shake impulse, especially in the United States–the pursuit of short-term, imposed solutions thought to deter migration. The Biden Administration´s recent proposal to limit access to asylum is just such a misguided move.
Any burden dumping approach on this side of the Atlantic would be manifestly unfair and run against the spirit of fraternity and solidarity that Colombia and Latin America have demonstrated
In its proposed reforms, the Biden Administration appears drawn by the siren song of shifting asylum ever further from its shores and onto “safe first countries.” In what should be a cautionary tale for the United States, a fully formed application of that approach has been tried – and has failed – in Europe. The European Union’s Dublin Regulation has overburdened border countries, introduced inefficiencies in asylum processing, undermined solidarity among countries, and eroded public confidence in Europe’s ability to manage migration. And that is in the EU, which has far greater institutionality and resources than does the inter-American system.
Any burden dumping approach on this side of the Atlantic would be manifestly unfair and run against the spirit of fraternity and solidarity that Colombia and Latin America have demonstrated. It would put unsustainable pressure on countries that have led by example, like Colombia, which is already showing unhelpful signs of backsliding. Compelling us to absorb even larger numbers could make it harder to preserve policies that have stabilized migrant populations. As it has in Europe, it would further incentivize migrants to enlist the support of smugglers to evade detection at borders.
To underscore that there is a better, more effective, way of managing migration, countries throughout the Americas must intensify welcoming efforts like we did for Venezuelans and make the promise of the LA Declaration a reality. Through it, we can bring far greater order to human mobility in our hemisphere and give all our democracies much needed breathing room.
Juan Manuel Santos was president of Colombia from 2010 to 2018 and is a Nobel Peace Laureate.
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