Converging crises: the impacts of COVID-19 on migration in South America

Luisa Feline Freier , Andrea Kvietok, Leon Lucar Oba

Producción científica: Documento de trabajo


Like those in other world regions, South American governments moved quickly in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to introduce strict border closures, entry bans, and mandatory lockdowns. Many of these policies, which aimed to prevent the spread of disease by stemming mobility, remained in place throughout much of 2020 and 2021. These measures had far-reaching consequences for migrant and refugee populations, including the millions of Venezuelans displaced across the region. These populations held various legal statuses: citizens of countries party to South America’s regional free movement agreements hold the right to work and reside in many other Member States, while displaced Venezuelans hold a range of humanitarian and nonhumanitarian statuses, and others still have crossed porous borders informally and remain without legal status. As job losses mounted in the early months of the pandemic, especially in the informal economy in which most newcomers work, migrants and refugees found themselves in a bind. Mandatory lockdowns meant that few jobs were available, yet migrants and refugees were often unable to access state-operated financial assistance programs. Meanwhile, border closures and travel restrictions prevented some destitute migrants and refugees from returning to their countries of origin, while others resorted to making the journey on foot, often with the help of smugglers and despite the risks these journeys entailed. These experiences illustrate the far-reaching consequences of excluding migrants and refugees from publichealth and crisis responses, as well as the high costs of closing borders. Cross-border mobility in the region, largely irregular, has resumed as COVID-19 cases have fallen and migrants and refugees are once more on the move in search of economic opportunity and safety. Yet, the pandemic offers important lessons for the region on how to promote safe and sustainable mobility in the future. This includes the value of including migrants and refugees in emergency assistance programs going forward, but also opportunities to build on regional strategies to improve their socioeconomic integration more broadly (e.g., providing access to social protection systems, mutual recognition of qualifications, and regularization programs that take a long-term approach). Investing in sustainable legal pathways for migration, regularization, and integration would not only reduce the vulnerability of migrants and refugees but also boost their labor market participation and earnings, thereby producing economic gains that benefit local communities and governments as well as individual immigrants and their families. The pandemic has also increased the need for more-robust regional cooperation mechanisms that can allow governments to develop coordinated responses to migration and protection issues. While governments have committed on paper to improving regional cooperation in response to the Venezuelan displacement crisis that has dramatically reshaped the region’s migration landscape, the challenges of navigating unilateral migration and public-health responses to the pandemic have underscored the importance of implementing and building on these agreements.
Idioma originalInglés
Lugar de publicaciónWashington, DC
EstadoPublicada - mar. 2024


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