Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. It appears here with permission. Click here to read the original article.
Migration is not a new phenomenon in Latin America. In 2017, almost 37 million Latin Americans (one in seven global migrants) lived outside of their native countries. Many emigrated to the United States and Europe, while others decided to set up roots in neighboring countries. Half of the migrants living in Argentina, around one million people, are from Bolivia and Paraguay. In 2015, one in every three Colombians that lived outside of the country was based in Venezuela. Currently, there are 25 Peruvians living in Chile for every one that did so in 1990.
In general terms, Latin Americans have always been generous to newly arrived migrants. But it took an extensive period, decades even, to reach that point. What is new is the sudden and mass migration motivated by the crises experienced in the region over the past couple of years. The Venezuelan exodus is the most predominant and known. But other recent examples include the migration of Haitians to Chile, Nicaraguans seeking refuge in Costa Rica, and Central Americans relocating to Mexico (and eventually to the United States). The international community has been slow to react. These host countries not only urgently need funds, but also humanitarian aid and other types of assistance that are rarely mentioned but equally relevant: knowledge and institutional capacity (in host countries).
The term “without precedent” doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of what is occurring in the region. Since 2015, 3.7 million Venezuelans (a figure larger than the population of Berlin) have fled the country, with 80 percent of them relocating within the region. According to projections by the United Nations, by the end of 2019, the number of Venezuelans that will have left the country will reach 5.4 million, larger than the sum of the populations of Madrid and Barcelona.
A number of reports show that, in the long term, migration fortifies and boosts economies. But there are necessary obstacles to overcome to take advantage of these benefits. Many migrants relocate in countries that don’t have a culture of integration or don’t count on generous budgets like those of richer countries and cities.
Here’s one case that could serve as a good example: Toronto, Canada has approximately six million inhabitants, 47 percent of which are foreigners. Its GDP per capita is $45,000. In contrast, the population of Lima, Peru is double that of Toronto, but its GDP per capita is a third of that, $15,000; and only one percent of its inhabitants come from abroad. And yet, Lima—being much poorer, and without Toronto’s culture of integrating migrants—is now receiving hundreds of thousands of people, a majority of them coming from Venezuela.
This, in turn, makes the process more traumatic, both for the families that escape their homeland under desperate conditions and the communities that receive them. It’s proven that locally, job opportunities and salaries are the first affected as a result of the competition for jobs between locals and migrants. Workers already active in the labor market who are viewed as easily replaceable are the ones most likely to suffer from cuts to their salaries or job loss due to the migratory wave.
Migration’s effect isn’t limited to the labor market.
Local governments, especially those of bordering countries, need to make the necessary sacrifices to increase spending on teachers, nurses, classrooms, housing, and other resources. The quality of these resources, already insufficient, will continue to deteriorate.
All this comes at a time of fiscal pressure and less economic growth globally. According to a report on macroeconomics by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Latin American and Caribbean countries need to make a fiscal adjustment of 2.2 percent to prevent their debt from continuing to increase.
But exactly how much money is required to integrate migrants? The Colombian government calculates that it would cost $1.5 billion—or 0.5 percent of its annual GDP. Similarly, the government of Bolivia predicts that properly addressing the Venezuelan migrant situation will take about $550 million, or 0.5 percent of the countries annual GDP from 2019 to 2021. Even then, it might not be enough. When Lebanon experienced a large arrival of Syrian migrants starting in 2011, the approximate cost to re-establish public services to their previous levels and quality required 5.5 percent of its GDP.
Once migrants relocate, they tend to stay. In the case of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) member states, almost 70 percent of the foreign population remains in these countries at least 10 years.
National and local authorities need to prepare investments and regulations that encompass more than just the initial emergency assistance. Doing this requires that governments develop a framework to effectively integrate migrants into local communities in a way that turns these diligent individuals into economic motors rather than economic baggage.
No country is capable of making these changes alone. Multilateral organizations need to assume responsibility. The IDB doesn’t offer emergency humanitarian aid, but there are other agencies better equipped to attend to the immediate needs of migrants. Doing it effectively means working alongside local institutions to help local communities integrate migrants so they can contribute to economic development. Currently, the IDB is presenting a special donation fund of $100 million that, combined with other donations and loans, will offer $1 billion in resources to local communities in areas like digital identity management, health and education. But to properly do this, it must bring together a multidisciplinary working group to guarantee the coordination of these projects. It is fundamental, for example, that a housing project takes into consideration sanitary, health, and educational necessities. This requires research and analysis of the public policies that work and case studies of countries where similar programs have succeeded. In the same breath, open dialogue platforms are being created in which government authorities can speak about their shared experiences and failures. Coordinated efforts between countries to promote a better response to migration issues—including aspects of regional interoperability of information systems (identity, health, competencies) or the harmonization of legal migration frameworks (visas, work permits)—will also be important. Multilateral institutions should endorse these collective efforts to address migration flows.
The complex and unprecedented nature of migration in Latin America and the Caribbean will also demand exceptional solutions. It’s not only a question of resolving the most pressing issues, like basic services and infrastructure, but also resolving these problems in innovative and creative ways. These solutions will not necessarily proceed with the application of new technologies, something that will be without a doubt important, but will demand the practice and scaling-up of new mechanisms, skipping unnecessary processes and finding, among other things, new ways of working with the private sector. The creative vitality that the private sector can provide is key.
The point is migration is here to stay—propelled not only by political crises but by climate change and natural disasters. It is predicted that by 2050, there will be about 200 million climate migrants, a figure equal to that of the current global migrant population. According to the UN, eight countries in the region, seven in Central America and the Caribbean (Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic) and one in South America (Guyana), are amongst the 25 countries most at risk of natural disasters. Changes in demographic trends will continue to incentivize migration from countries with higher fertility rates and a growing workforce, to countries with relatively older populations and labor market deficits.
Implementing the wrong policies can have consequences, from xenophobia to social tensions. However, when the adopted policies are adequate, migrants can have a positive effect on development—especially when they are socioeconomically integrated, have access to the formal labor market, pay taxes, and contribute to the health system. Migrants tend to be young, offering a demographic dividend, much more in countries experiencing aging populations. Migration is also associated with better jobs for locals, thanks to professional mobility. It has been proven that, among other consequences of migration, the recipient countries experience greater foreign direct investment, exports, and initiatives. The contribution of all of these channels can have substantial results. Raising the foreign-born population by one percentage point elevates income per capita by approximately six percent in the long-run. There is no amount of external resources that can match this level of well-being for a population. Integrating migrants is not only the right thing to do, it is also a great opportunity for development.