Latin America in a post-Covid world
The pandemic came at a time when most Latin American economies were slowing down. Yet, intra-regional migration continued. With the informal sector dominating the economies of the region and 40% of the population living in a vicious circle of low-skilled, low pay, informal employment, anti-immigrant feelings are resurfacing.
Throughout the region, and despite the reductions in poverty achieved in the first decade of the 2000s, 40% of the population live in poverty.
In countries such as Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, the informal economy still represents a significant proportion of the economies, providing 50-60% of employment.
With lockdowns suppressing economic activity, it is the informal sector that bore the brunt of the economic cost of the pandemic. And despite this environment, intra-regional migration continued as millions of people found themselves fleeing their precarious home labour markets to join other neighbouring, but equally precarious ones.
A paper produced by two academics in Brazil and Uruguay recently assessed the impact the pandemic has had so far on the large number of migrants and refugees. Even before the pandemic, migrants were subject to unemployment rates of twice the national average. In the extreme case of Peru, it is four times higher.
Migration in the region has (mostly) been of a Venezuelan origin (with nearly 5 million of them leaving their home country since 2015), followed by half a million Hondurans and another half a million of Haitians.
In the region, Colombia, Peru and to a lesser extent Chile have welcomed most of them.
Vulnerabilities and inequalities
The concentration of migrants in jobs that demand continuous exposure to the public means that migrants have been badly hit by lockdowns and social distancing requirements. Their income decreased by 80% in the first few months of the pandemic as most of their jobs simply disappeared.
In excess of 1 million Venezuelans in Colombia and Ecuador were expected by the UN’s World Food Programme to be in a position of severe food insecurity.
The pandemic has brought to the fore the long-standing vulnerabilities and inequalities that have shaped the region for a long period of time.
However, vulnerability in terms of access to quality housing and labour varied widely across groups of migrants. Venezuelan migrants have been most vulnerable in Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, as have Haitians and Cubans in Chile and Uruguay.
Whatever the nationality of the migrant or the destination country, migration in the region shares a number of characteristics. Migrants tend to travel in large groups, often on foot, often in a short period of time, and they typically flee from socio and economic upheaval and deprivation.
Yet, by the time Covid hit Latin America, most countries had shut their borders to non-residents and non-citizens, “jeopardising the universal human right to freedom of movement into and out of countries of origin and the safeguarding of countries” humanitarian protection systems’.
As a result, asylum procedures, visas and residence permit applications were either shut down or significantly delayed, preventing migrants from accessing pandemic-mitigation programmes such as income support and housing provision.
Availability of, and access to health services – crucial in times of pandemic – is a complex affair, with access linked to migrants’ legal status in both Colombia and Peru. In contrast, access to health services is guaranteed by the Constitution irrespective to legal status in Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay.
Vulnerabilities and inequalities
Colombia welcomed nearly 2 million Venezuelans inn recent years as the country shares with its neighbour a 2,200 km long border.
The Colombian government granted Venezuelan migrants fleeing the Maduro’s regime the right to live and work in Colombia. Although more than 20% of them have a university or technical degree, it is in the informal economy that competition between Colombians and Venezuelan migrants is the fiercest.
But as always in times of crisis, anti-immigration feelings and anti-immigrant discourse quickly resurface alongside pronounced racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
In Colombia, as the economy reopened, competition for jobs intensified and crime increased, public support for migrants has been fading.
According to the United Nations, negative attitudes towards immigrants increased and, alongside this, a stigmatisation of the migrant community.
And so too in Peru, where public opinion is divided after years of welcoming an unprecedented wave of migrants, in particular from Venezuela. Anti-immigrants feelings, racism, xenophobia and exclusion have increased in most countries, with immigrants being accused of spreading Covid-19 in both Chile and Peru.
As the economies in the region reopen the question remains as to how those factors will keep affecting the much needed social and economic integration of millions of migrants in their new home countries.
* Nicolas Forsans: Professor of Management and MBA Director at the University of Essex, UK. Co-director of the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a member of many Latin American societies and think tanks, Nicolas investigates the economic and societal challenges in the region generally, and in Colombia more specifically.
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