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International migration in Latin America and the Caribbean: the imperative of rights and sustainable development

ECLAC believes that migration should be an informed and free choice, and not a necessity imposed by deprivation and suffering

International migration in Latin America
A group of migrants hands themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol, May 12, 2023.Nayeli Cruz
José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs

International migration has taken center stage in the policy debate in Latin America and the Caribbean. Virtually all countries of the region are participants in migration cycles, be they countries of origin, destination, return or transit. According to United Nations estimates, in 2020, 43 million of the region’s inhabitants were living outside their country of birth, accounting for 15% of the global migrant population. The United States remains the leading migratory destination, although several countries of South America have attracted large numbers of migrants, particularly Venezuelan nationals. The Coordination Plataform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), estimates that there are 6 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the region, living primarily in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.

Migratory movements across the region reflect both push and pull factors. Push factors include the structural lack of opportunities for decent work and economic crises, environmental disasters and the effects of climate change, humanitarian crises, and, increasingly, the rise in insecurity and all forms of violence. Pull factors include greater employment opportunities, education, better salaries and family reunification.

While Latin America and the Caribbean has traditionally been a region of migration, the salient feature of the current panorama is the intensification and increasing complexity of migration. Today, international migration is ever more marked by irregular flows and may involve economic migrants, environmental migrants, forced or involuntary migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, irregular migrants, trafficked persons, victims of trafficking and stranded migrants, and unaccompanied children and adolescents, among others. The common thread in these mixed migration flows is the vulnerability of many of the persons concerned.

The difficulties faced by migrants on the move have reached unacceptable levels that appeal to our conscience. Transit to the United States is typified by migrant caravans and unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents in Central America and Mexico, and there has been a sharp increase in migration flows through the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world: 2022 saw around 250,000 irregular entries through the area, almost double the 2021 figure. There are also a number of routes in South America, such as the Colchane border crossing on the Chilean-Bolivian altiplano, which claim human lives. Scores of lives were lost in the recent fire at a migrant center in Ciudad Juárez.

Migration is a development and rights issue which demands a response grounded in a comprehensive approach to sustainable development and the obligation of States to protect human dignity, regardless of gender, age, origin, ethnicity or migration status. The approach at ECLAC is one framed by migration governance that is profoundly people-centric and empowers countries to make appropriate decisions that do not compromise the dignity of migrants, recognizing their contributions to sustainable development.

The contributions of migrants are manifold. Many of the countries of the region with the highest rates of immigration have aging populations, which points to the need to incorporate a working-age population, particularly in light of the labor shortages becoming apparent in some sectors, such as agriculture, care and services. ECLAC studies have also shown that migrants contribute significantly to economic growth and cultural diversity. In all countries, remittances are an important component of household income and help to alleviate poverty. The World Bank estimates that remittance inflows to Latin America and the Caribbean amounted to $142 billion in 2022, which represents 20% or more of GDP for countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua.

It cannot be overlooked that during the pandemic, the region’s migrant population played a key role, performing front-line jobs in transport, health services and care. However, lack of access to decent work, social protection, health, education and housing for many migrants, who are one of the most vulnerable population groups in the region, is cause for concern.

Regularization processes must be streamlined to allow migrants access to employment and to social services. Fighting xenophobia and discrimination against migrant populations is also a must.

A multilateral response to the challenges of migration is needed. In 2018, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a framework for improving international cooperation on all aspects of migration, was adopted under the auspices of the United Nations. The Global Compact indicates that migration is safe, orderly and secure when it occurs in compliance with the laws and regulations governing the exit from, entry into, return to, and stay in states, and with states’ obligations under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of migrants, recognizing and mitigating the risks associated with human movements. On 25 March, in the Santo Domingo Declaration adopted at the Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State and Government, the countries of the region reiterated their commitment to safe, orderly and regular migration, with full respect for the human rights of migrants.

ECLAC firmly believes that migration should be an informed and free choice, and not a necessity imposed by deprivation and suffering. This is why a regional approach to the management of migration is needed, establishing shared responsibilities among states and taking into account the entire migration cycle. States are also encouraged to update their migration laws to ensure that they adequately respond to the new challenges.

Most importantly, what is required is the promotion of productive, inclusive and sustainable development, with more and better jobs and opportunities in countries of origin. ECLAC therefore promotes growth, employment generation and improved well-being through productive development policies that boost economic sectors and steer development patterns towards more knowledge-intensive sectors, with higher rates of growth in demand and employment, for the benefit of both migrant and non-migrant populations.

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