E.g., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024
In a Dramatic Shift, the Americas Have Become a Leading Migration Destination

In a Dramatic Shift, the Americas Have Become a Leading Migration Destination

Venezuelan migrants at the Colombian border.

Venezuelan migrants at the Colombian border. (Photo: IOM/Angela Wells)

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Since 2010, no single region has experienced a greater relative increase in international migration than Latin America and the Caribbean. The number of migrants living in the region nearly doubled from 8.3 million in 2010 to 16.3 million in 2022, a dramatic shift driven by a series of displacement crises, free-movement arrangements, and former emigrants returning with foreign-born children and spouses, among other trends.

Notably, much of the migration has been between countries within the region. This marks a change from just a few years ago, when discussions of regional movement were mostly about people leaving, usually heading to the United States, Canada, or Europe. While this outflow persists, recent decades have seen Latin America and the Caribbean emerge as a zone of vibrant intraregional migration, as well as return migration in some countries.

This transition has led to an evolving migration management architecture that includes new policies, instruments, and institutions in individual countries. Governments’ approaches have been uneven and often primarily focused on short-term needs but nonetheless generally open and pragmatic. Writ large, policymakers have tried to strike a balance between welcoming new arrivals and creating orderly processes for entry.

There are also elements of a new hemispheric architecture emerging between countries, though this is far from being consolidated. Five mobility agreements have developed over the past few years in different subregions within the Americas. Several new forums for managing migration have also taken root, and 21 countries in the hemisphere signed on to the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a landmark pact establishing high-level lines of action across the hemisphere.

This article reviews the recent trends in migration in Latin America and the Caribbean, including humanitarian displacement, labor mobility patterns, and other factors responsible for heightened international movement since 2010, and how countries have responded to these trends. The exodus of millions of people from Venezuela may be the single most visible development, but it is only one of several responsible for a shift in migration patterns, along with large-scale movements from countries in crisis in Central America, Cuba, and Haiti; new legal mobility pathways that facilitate regular movement among neighboring countries; and the arrival of growing numbers of people from outside the region, often in tandem with return migrants. At the same time, the region has given birth to a rapidly maturing set of policies and agreements seeking to manage this movement, although these efforts are still in an early stage and require continued focus.

Figure 1. Number of Immigrants in Latin American and the Caribbean, 1990-2022*

* The 2022 figures rely on a combination of data from 2020, 2021, and 2022 to represent the situation as accurately as possible, given the increase in Venezuelan migration. The calculations used baseline 2020 population estimates from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and then updated the number of Venezuelan migrants for all countries to 2021 or 2022 data for those countries where data were available, since several countries significantly improved their estimates of Venezuelan immigration (which had generally been undercounted) in these two years.
Sources: Authors’ calculations based on UN DESA, Population Division, “International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin,” accessed March 22, 2023, available online; Interagency Coordination Platform for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants (R4V), “Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela,” accessed March 22, 2023, available online; Chilean National Migration Service, “Estimación de Extranjeros,” accessed March 22, 2023, available online; Migración Colombia, “Distribución de Venezolanas y Venezolanos en Colombia,” October 2022, shared with authors in December 2022.

Box 1. Definitions

Latin America and the Caribbean is a region spanning most of the Western Hemisphere that includes 50 countries and territories across three major subregions, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The definition includes places such as French Guiana and Puerto Rico, which are territories of other countries in Europe and North America, as well as sovereign nations.

The Caribbean includes Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Aruba; the Bahamas; Barbados; Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba; the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands; Cuba; Curaçao; Dominica; the Dominican Republic; Grenada; Guadeloupe; Haiti; Jamaica; Martinique; Montserrat; Puerto Rico; Saint Barthélemy; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Martin (French part); Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Sint Maarten (Dutch part); Trinidad and Tobago; Turks and Caicos Islands; and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Central America includes Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.

South America includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

A Rapid Shift in Migration Patterns

From World War II through the end of the 20th century, most migration in Latin America and the Caribbean consisted of people leaving the region. There were a few well-established migration routes between neighboring countries (often via irregular pathways), but countries generally received relatively low levels of migration through most of the second half of the century, with some exceptions including Argentina, Belize, Brazil, and Costa Rica.

In the final years of the 20th century, civil wars, political crises, and other shocks including natural disasters prompted major displacement from countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru, with migrants going mainly to nearby countries. Nicaraguans typically fled to Costa Rica; Colombians to Ecuador and Venezuela; and Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans to Mexico. For the most part, governments responded by opening their doors and eventually (though not always immediately) offering access to legal status to people who settled, though reception and integration processes varied. The one notable exception was displacement from Haiti, which was generally met with far more resistance from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

In the early 2010s, these patterns started to change dramatically. Political and economic crises and natural disasters prompted the displacement of millions from Venezuela and hundreds of thousands from northern Central America, Cuba, and Haiti, in movements that came to define a new era of migration in the region. Almost every country in the Americas saw an increase in the number of immigrants, the only exceptions being a few that themselves were undergoing crisis. In many cases, migrants arrived as asylum seekers or needing humanitarian support from host governments; arrivals sometimes included large numbers of unaccompanied minors.

Figure 2. Number of Immigrants in Select Latin American and Caribbean Countries, 2010-22*

* The 2022 figures rely on a combination of data from 2020, 2021, and 2022 to represent the situation as accurately as possible, given the increase in Venezuelan migration. The calculations used baseline 2020 population estimates from UN DESA and then updated the number of Venezuelan migrants for all countries to 2021 or 2022 data for those countries where data were available, since several countries significantly improved their estimates of Venezuelan immigration (which had generally been undercounted) in these two years.
Sources: Authors’ calculations based on UN DESA “International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin;” R4V, “Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela;” and Chilean National Migration Service, “Estimación de Extranjeros;” Migración Colombia, “Distribución de Venezolanas y Venezolanos en Colombia.”

Since 2015, approximately 7.4 million Venezuelans have been displaced from their origin country, around 6.4 million of them to other locations within Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these, more than one-third (2.9 million) were estimated to be in Colombia as of March 2023, 1.5 million in Peru, 502,000 in Ecuador, 444,000 in Chile, 426,000 in Brazil, 220,000 in Argentina, and 148,000 in Panama.

Moreover, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti marked the first in a series of recent natural disasters and political crises affecting the country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Haitians emigrating to other countries in the hemisphere. Most initially settled in the United States, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Brazil, although many who set off within the region eventually moved elsewhere. Cubans, relying on strong diaspora networks and social capital, have over several years abandoned their country’s deteriorating political and economic situation, heading not just to the United States—home to the largest Cuban diaspora—but also to countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. And since the 2018 political crackdown in Nicaragua, around 200,000 Nicaraguans have applied for asylum in Costa Rica, some others fled to Panama, and U.S. authorities have recorded approximately 300,000 encounters with Nicaraguans at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2021.

As a result of intersecting push and pull factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and uneven immigrant integration mechanisms, large numbers of these migrants have started moving northward since 2020, hoping to reach the United States. In fiscal year (FY) 2022, U.S. authorities encountered unauthorized migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border a record-high 2.4 million times (this is a count of events, not unique individuals, and there has been a significant degree of attempted re-entry by previously encountered migrants). Many migrants pass through the treacherous Darién Gap, a 93-mile strip of rainforest between Colombia and Panama where armed gangs and other perilous conditions are rampant, resulting in an unknown number of deaths and injuries. Between 2014 and 2020, the predominant nationalities transiting through the Darién were Cubans (often anticipating U.S. policy to be more welcoming) and Haitians (moving for a second or third time after work opportunities dried up in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere). While more than 110,000 migrants traversed the rainforest over that seven-year period, the numbers jumped dramatically to an unprecedented 134,000 in 2021 alone and then nearly doubled in 2022, to 248,000 (see Figure 3). The vast majority of crossings are by people from Latin America and the Caribbean, but migrants from Africa and Asia have been a persistent presence, making up 10 percent of travelers in 2022. 

Figure 3. Number of Crossings of the Darién Gap, by Nationality, 2010-22

Source: Authors’ calculations based on Migración Panama, “Estadísticas,” accessed March 28, 2023, available online.

Many northbound migrants have found entering the United States too difficult and so have settled in Mexico, often seeking asylum there. In 2021, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received about 130,000 asylum applications, an eightfold increase over the 15,000 asylum applications lodged in 2017 and more than all other countries worldwide except the United States and Germany (numbers decreased slightly in 2022, to nearly 120,000). Asylum seekers in Mexico tend to come from Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Labor Migration and Other Types of Movement  

Not all migration has been the result of displacement crises. Since the early 2000s, subregional arrangements have allowed some migrants to move easily to neighboring countries for economic opportunities or other purposes. There are two mobility agreements within the Caribbean (the Caribbean Community’s Single Market and Economy [CSME] and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States’ Economic Union [ECEU]), two in South America (the Mercosur Residence Agreement and the Andean Community’s Migration Statute), and one in Central America (the Central American Free Mobility Agreement [CA-4]).

These agreements have often made migration more fluid and easier to manage. Under the CSME, nationals of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Member States are entitled to six-month visa-free stays (but not work authorization) elsewhere in the bloc, with some easier pathways to residence for certain professionals. Although implementation of the CSME regime is uneven, nationals from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were the most likely to take advantage of it as of 2017, the latest year with reliable data. Meanwhile, the Mercosur agreement has created an easily accessible legal channel for South Americans to migrate to Argentina and Uruguay, and largely eliminated irregular migration in those countries. The CA-4 agreement in Central America also allowed signatory country nationals to live temporarily in neighboring nations, though requirements have been tightened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Andean Community’s mobility agreement is still relatively new, but it too appears to be creating opportunities for Member State nationals to live and work temporarily across the bloc.

Return migration also has played a role in the changing trend, with many regional nationals returning from periods abroad and bringing foreign-born spouses and children. This is particularly noticeable in Colombia and Mexico but is occurring in almost every country with a sizable emigrant population. Over 1 million Colombian migrants in Venezuela have returned to their origin country as conditions worsened, many with foreign-born spouses and children. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have returned to their country of origin since the early 2000s with U.S.-born children and spouses; there are now over 500,000 U.S. citizen children living in Mexico.

And there are also quite a few migrants from outside the region who have moved to Caribbean and Latin American countries to pursue employment, retire, or work remotely. Several Caribbean countries, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama have been particularly popular, but this too is a regionwide phenomenon.

As such, the makeup of countries’ immigrant populations differs across the region. For instance, Colombia hosts the region’s single largest immigrant population, due to the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelans, while migrants from Colombia are one of the largest groups in neighboring Ecuador, accounting for 23 percent of its overall foreign-born population. In Mexico, two-thirds of all immigrants are from the United States. And in Brazil, immigrants from Portugal (comprising 14 percent of the overall foreign-born population) and Japan (5 percent) account for the second- and third largest national-origin groups, respectively (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Immigrant Groups’ Shares of Overall Foreign-Born Population in Select Latin American and Caribbean Countries, 2022*

* The 2022 figures rely on a combination of data from 2020, 2021, and 2022 to represent the situation as accurately as possible, given the increase in Venezuelan migration. The calculations used baseline 2020 population estimates from UN DESA and then updated the number of Venezuelan migrants for all countries to 2021 or 2022 data (using the most recent available).
Sources: Authors’ calculations based on UN DESA “International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin;” R4V, “Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela;” and Chilean National Migration Service, “Estimación de Extranjeros;” Migración Colombia, “Distribución de Venezolanas y Venezolanos en Colombia.”

A Mixed but Generally Open Response

Overall, governments in the region have responded with openness to new arrivals, although attitudes have not been uniform. This approach was partly a result of changes in immigration laws facilitating arrival and rights for migrants in the early part of the century, as well as geopolitical positions vis-a-vis authoritarian governments and, at times, a sense of solidarity with neighbors in distress.

Most countries, for example, offered access to legal status to displaced Venezuelans. Brazil, Mexico, and, to some extent, Costa Rica, did so through their asylum system. Mexico and Costa Rica also provided status through regular visa channels (as did Chile, Ecuador, and Panama), and Argentina and Uruguay relied on regional mobility agreements. Many turned to ad hoc regularization mechanisms, the most ambitious of which was Colombia’s offer of ten-year temporary residency to roughly 2.3 million Venezuelans in the country who did not have other long-term status already; the mechanism, launched in 2021, also allows the option to transition to permanent status through existing visas if they meet certain conditions. Multiple other countries have pursued similar initiatives, though some of them are far more limited in scope.

As a result of these efforts, a significant majority of Venezuelan migrants (though not all) appear to have acquired some form of legal status in the countries where they reside—somewhere between 50 percent and 75 percent, according to calculations by the authors. But in many cases their status is temporary, requires constant renewal, and may not provide full labor market access in practice. Most governments have provided access to education, at least at the primary and secondary level, and most (though not all) have provided some access to health care. But on-the-ground situations vary from country to country, and many Venezuelans have remained in dire circumstances, especially amid economic turmoil following the pandemic, with some as a result later engaging in secondary migration.

Haitians have met somewhat more explicit hostility, due to differences in language and culture as well as patterns of racial discrimination. The Dominican Republic, which has a long and complicated history with Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born descendants, issued special humanitarian protection visas to some Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake, but in 2013 a court ruling stripped the Dominican citizenship of an estimated 210,000 people born in the country to Haitian parents and ancestors. Other destination countries have provided humanitarian protection or made visa systems more flexible to accommodate displaced Haitians, but individual migrants have often encountered wavering support and social stigma. For instance, since 2012, Brazil has issued more than 60,000 special visas granting Haitians two-year residence with the possibility to transition to permanent status, while Chile made employment-based visas more flexible from 2016 to 2018 to accommodate the arrival of tens of thousands of Haitians and Venezuelans, although the government later made entry more difficult for nationals of both countries. Many Haitian migrants have also reported being subjected to discrimination and difficulty finding reliable work.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica went to great lengths to receive Nicaraguans fleeing their government’s growing autocracy and spiraling economy, offering education and emergency health care. Most Nicaraguans could apply for asylum, which allowed them to work legally while their applications were processed. In Costa Rica, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans whose asylum applications are denied become eligible for a special temporary visa so they can remain. However, as numbers have risen to record highs, the Costa Rican government made its asylum system more restrictive and denied new asylum seekers the right to work, leading to a sharp drop in asylum applications from Nicaraguans.

In Belize, immigrants accounted for nearly 16 percent of the overall population of 395,000 as of 2020; more than three-quarters of them came from Guatemala (43 percent) or El Salvador and Honduras (16 percent each), countries facing a mix of economic distress and political unrest. The government has implemented a series of regularization initiatives including launching a program in 2022 to grant status to irregular migrants who entered before 2017 and meet educational, work, or family reunification requirements.

Mexico has extended both asylum protections and humanitarian visas to tens of thousands of arriving migrants from the region. While many of them find safety and refuge in parts of Mexico, they often face significant structural and administrative barriers that hinder their long-term inclusion in Mexican society. In the absence of effective and comprehensive government intervention, responsibility for addressing their needs falls mostly on a strained network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations.

Integration Can Be Harder than Arrival

Accommodating new arrivals has become a challenge across the hemisphere. While countries have often tried to provide legal pathways and education, key questions remain about labor market integration, equitable access to services, and social acceptance. The global economic recession triggered by the pandemic exacerbated these challenges. For instance, while legal status played an important role helping some Venezuelans get jobs, most have remained in the informal market and often in low-paying positions. Many migrants find themselves in the lower economic strata of the societies where they have arrived, sometimes even if they have professional or technical skills that could be better utilized.

In fact, recent northward movement by many Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans already living in other countries has reflected not only the appeal of the United States but also the difficulties many had in their initial settlement countries. This has been particularly true for Haitians, who have often encountered unique levels of discrimination.

Clearly, there is a long way to go. So far, many policy responses have been incomplete and solely focused on short-term solutions. Most countries in the region are still trying to strengthen and scale up their immigration systems, build asylum regimes, and resolve questions about legal pathways and border control. Almost all are wrestling with how to promote equitable access to the labor market and public services, and most lack the institutional strength to execute policies and manage migration effectively. And openness to current immigrants has often come with greater restrictions on future arrivals. Governments are trying to find a balance to control their borders, build legal pathways, and develop protection systems, but often privilege one or two priorities over others. However, despite lacking significant recent experience with mass migration, they have also weathered a period of rapid change with noticeable openness and pragmatism.

The Building Blocks of a New Regional Architecture

A decade or two ago, when countries in the Western Hemisphere talked about migration, it was almost always a conversation between sending countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and receiving countries in the global North. To be sure, there was some intraregional migration, but it paled in comparison to the flows traveling from south to north.

Now, this conversation is different. Almost all countries are wrestling with issues of immigration and humanitarian protection, and as a result multiple regional forums have sprung up or been consolidated over the past few years. The most significant of these are the subregional agreements on mobility requiring neighboring countries to coordinate policy. Several broader forums have also emerged. Since 2018, the Quito Process has allowed the major host governments for displaced Venezuelans to share information and coordinate strategies. The Interagency Coordination Platform for Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants (R4V), run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and IOM, has become a highly practical coordinating body and source of information sharing. Additionally, two forums coordinated by IOM—the Regional Migration Conference among countries of North and Central America and the South American Regional Conference on Migration—have provided information and ideas since even before the current wave of migration, although they have become far more visible as a result of it. The UNHCR-led Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS) process has also helped strengthen key elements of asylum systems across Central America. And both the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have launched targeted efforts to address migration issues in the hemisphere.

Another result of this growing communication and coordination was the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, in which 21 countries from Canada to Chile committed to developing four main lines of action: generating stability and assistance for communities hosting large displaced migrant populations; expanding legal pathways; strengthening protection systems; and increasing coordination on migration management and emergency responses. Implementing these principles is difficult and will require serious efforts to share data, create new migration pathways, and bolster asylum systems. Since the region is now hosting some of the largest displaced populations in the world, continued international cooperation will be essential for ensuring that countries can successful integrate those who arrived.

The hemisphere’s policy changes over the past decade are significant. Yet responding to the new and diversified movements remains a work in progress. Until the last decade, few Latin American and Caribbean countries had devoted serious attention to migration and protection policies, and intergovernmental dialogue was limited. The transformation of migration to a front-burner issue in the region is an opportunity for governments to set effective policies, build robust institutions, and more broadly understand how to manage mobility across the hemisphere. It also marks a watershed moment for a part of the world that had historically featured only modest intraregional movement, despite remarkable similarities in language, culture, and history. Many challenges are yet to be resolved, but it is clear that a new era has begun.

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