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In Latin America, Spike in Migrant Arrivals Prompts Flurry of Responses

In Latin America, Spike in Migrant Arrivals Prompts Flurry of Responses

MetroCaracas EneasDeTroya Flickr

A bustling train station in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo: Eneas De Troya)

Increased flows of migrants moving across South America, particularly Venezuelans and Haitians, proved challenging for national governments in 2017 and led to a variety of responses throughout the region—most of them welcoming. Economic collapse and growing political unrest in Venezuela, once a popular destination for immigrants, drove outflows of people seeking vital resources such as food and medicine or fleeing persecution and government crackdowns. Meanwhile, Haitians who had left after the 2010 earthquake charted out new destinations in Latin America, and were joined by others escaping the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew in late 2016.

Some South American countries, particularly Ecuador and Venezuela, have significant experience contending with large-scale movements given the recently ended 52-year civil war in Colombia as well as the lengthy history of refugees fleeing right-wing military dictatorships across the region. Several have reacted to the recent flows by creating different types of legal status for migrants who may not qualify for asylum, for example Peru’s new temporary work-study permit (the Temporary Stay Permit). Others, such as Chile, which has only recently begun to contend with arrivals in significant numbers, have struggled to keep up—and have witnessed growing calls for more restrictions on immigration, echoing developments in the United States and Europe.

Still, official responses in 2017, especially to Venezuelan flows, have mostly been open and accommodating. If these exoduses continue, however, they could generate backlash among the broader public. It remains to be seen whether and how significant movements could affect the continent’s decade-plus-long progression toward free movement.

Venezuelan Migration Leads to Legal Fixes

In 2017, Venezuela’s political and economic crises escalated amid extreme hyperinflation, goods shortages, and an increasingly authoritarian government. In the spring, protests erupted after the Supreme Court, allied with President Nicolás Maduro, stripped the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature. Though the court quickly reversed the move, unrest has continued, and the fragile situation has led Venezuelans to migrate across the continent in the tens of thousands, adding to the estimated 2 million people who left in the decade and a half since former President Hugo Chávez took office.

Table 1. Top Legal Avenues for Venezuelans in Latin America

Sources: Agence France Presse (AFP), “Solicitudes de Refugio de Venezolanos en Brasil Se Quintuplican en 2017,” October 24, 2017, available online; Migration Colombia, “Hoy Vence Plazo para que Venezolanos Tramiten el PEP,” October 31, 2017, available online; UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Venezuela Situation,” October 2017, available online.

Most Venezuelan emigrants have gone to Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru, with Panama, Argentina, and Chile also receiving significant numbers (see Table 1). Venezuelans, like most South Americans, do not need a visa to temporarily enter other countries in the region, but they generally need separate authorization to work. Of the more than 100,000 asylum claims that Venezuelans filed worldwide between 2014 and 2017, more than half came in 2017. In the United States alone, some 28,000 Venezuelans applied for asylum in fiscal year 2017. (The United States is no longer open to Venezuelan government officials and their immediate families; a revised travel ban signed by President Donald Trump in September 2017 added them to a list banning the entry of nationals from several countries).


After the United States, Brazil received the most Venezuelan asylum applications in 2017. Venezuelans filed more than 13,600 asylum applications in Brazil through October, compared to nearly 3,400 for all of 2016. Few have been granted asylum, partly due to processing backlogs; in February 2017 some appointments were being scheduled for 2018.

In response, Brazil in March introduced a two-year temporary residence permit, intended for Venezuelans who otherwise would have applied for asylum despite not qualifying. The permit has proven popular: From March through July 2017, Venezuelans submitted just 300 applications, but after the government waived the $120 application fee in August, 1,500 people applied over the following two months. However, applicants for asylum and temporary residence must reach the top of a waiting list to gain work authorization, causing many Venezuelans to resort to informal work, without labor protections, for a time.


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Colombia—which itself witnessed major humanitarian outflows during a half-century-long civil war that ended only in 2016—has become a principal receiving country for Venezuelans. Through the first half of 2017, those crossing into Colombia mostly returned after stocking up on food and medicine. However, by the second half of the year, a growing number were remaining in Colombia; as of October, some 470,000 Venezuelans lived in the country, 202,000 with authorization.

In 2017, Colombia created two ways for Venezuelans to legalize their status: the Border Mobility Card, which allows Venezuelans living in border regions to make brief trips into Colombia, and the Special Stay Permit, an alternative to asylum that provides work authorization and legal status for up to two years. More than 1 million Venezuelans have applied for the Border Mobility Card, and about 68,000 applied for the Special Stay Permit during the three-month registration period. While similar processes in other countries have suffered bureaucratic delays, the online application for the Special Stay Permit is both free and immediate.

In addition to thousands of new Venezuelan migrants, Colombians who previously fled to Venezuela during the armed conflict are returning. In the first three weeks of September, 47,000 Colombians returned from Venezuela, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


In the first seven months of 2017, roughly 81,000 Venezuelans entered Peru. The country’s Temporary Stay Permit, created in February 2017, is similar to that of Colombia. It has provided more than 11,000 Venezuelans one year of legal status and work authorization, and the government expects about 9,000 Venezuelans to apply in a second round.


In 2016 and the first eight months of 2017, Ecuador experienced net migration of 62,000 Venezuelans who entered and stayed in the country, slightly more than one-quarter of all Venezuelan entries. This is up from 10,000, or one-tenth of all Venezuelan arrivals, in 2015. Though Ecuador since 2010 has offered a special visa for Venezuelans, the $250 application fee may be prohibitive for some, particularly as members of the middle and lower classes have begun to leave Venezuela. Roughly 40 percent of Venezuelans in Ecuador have some type of temporary residence visa, including those not designated specifically for Venezuelans, according to UNHCR.

Venezuelans Elsewhere          

Argentina, Chile, and Panama have also been experiencing influxes of Venezuelans. The Argentine government estimated that it will issue 40,000 temporary and permanent resident visas to Venezuelans this year, more than three times the 12,800 issued in 2016. About 45,000 Venezuelans migrated to Chile in the first half of 2017, compared to 20,000 in all of 2016. Further, at least 60,000 Venezuelans were estimated to be living in the southern Caribbean in October 2017, according to UNHCR.

Meanwhile, Panama has cracked down on Venezuelan migration, and in October became the first country in the region to rescind visa-free travel for them. President Juan Carlos Varela claimed Venezuelan migration was putting Panama’s security and economy at risk. Concurrently, the government announced it would legalize the 25,000 Venezuelans counted in the census completed in June 2017.

Haitians Seek New Destinations

In 2016, as jobs in Brazil dried up following the Rio Olympics and amid a broader economic downturn, Haitians who had moved there after the 2010 earthquake began heading elsewhere. These flows continued in 2017. Since the United States in September 2016 stopped allowing in Haitians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization to enter, some waiting at the border have settled in northern Mexico, while others moved across South America. Haitians have faced more obstacles to their movement than Venezuelans: Only Argentina, Chile, and Guyana allow Haitians to enter without visas.


Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s administration reacted to increased flows by upping enforcement: In January, Macri issued a decree limiting immigration to Argentina by expanding the reasons immigrants could be denied entry or a visa, while increasing interior enforcement and expediting removal of those with criminal records. However, Argentina was also one of just a few countries that implemented a legalization program for Haitians in 2017. Those without criminal records who arrived legally before March 1 had six months, starting March 15, to apply for a free two-year residence visa.


Chile has seen a dramatic increase in Haitian arrivals over the past several years: In 2016 some 44,000 migrated to Chile; a similar number arrived in just a six-month period in 2017. While the government has made some efforts to integrate Haitians into society (by recognizing education completed in Haiti and teaching government officials Haitian Creole), the newcomers have faced racism and labor exploitation. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in August proposed a new immigration law, similar to Macri’s proposal, that would prohibit certain people from entering and establish a list of deportable crimes. The country is also considering requiring visas for Haitians to enter.

Emerging Challenges

While Latin American countries experiencing rising immigration have largely been welcoming to newcomers at a policy level, bureaucratic delays that can relegate even those eligible for a temporary visa to the informal economy are routine, as is discrimination against newcomers. Also, notably, some politicians, such as the leading presidential candidate in Chile and an ultra-right-wing candidate in Brazil, have expressed anti-immigrant sentiments, a striking contrast for a region that has in the past couple of decades sought to codify migration as a right. The developments of 2017 could presage a bumpier road ahead —particularly as the Venezuelan exodus shows no signs of slowing.



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