International Migration in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Snapshot

June 17, 2020

By Piotr Plewa, Visiting Research Scholar, Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS)

Annual Net Migration Rate 2015–2020

How significant is international migration in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)?

International migration in LAC remains modest by global standards.

In 2019, there were 272 million international migrants in the world, 12 million in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC?).  With only 4% of the world’s migrants, LAC hosted the fewest migrants except for Oceania.  International migrants constituted less than a 2% share of LAC’s total population, less than on any other continent.

Is migration within LAC likely to remain modest?

International migration in LAC had been increasing since the 2000s, but COVID-19 paused and even reversed it. Given the large potential of emigration from Venezuela, the future of intra-regional migration will continue to be shaped by mobility (or lack thereof) of Venezuelan citizens.

Human mobility in the region has accelerated since the 2000s. The annual rate of change in migrant stock in LAC in 2000-2019 was 3%, i.e. slightly above the global rate of 2.4%. The figure does not reflect many unknowns, especially any restrictions on human mobility in the COVID-19 and post COVID-19 years. The onset of COVID-19 precipitated return migration of migrants to their countries of origin. It also paused the newly emerging trend of migration from Africa and Asia to LAC. There are multiple push and pull factors of migration in LAC including economic, social and environmental.  Combining them all, Venezuelan mobility (or lack thereof) is likely to shape the future development of intra-regional mobility in LAC.

Are there any differences in migrant stocks across LAC region?

The proportion of migrants in LAC ranges from less than 0.5% to more than 30%, being the highest in the Caribbean Islands, moderate in the Andes and the Southern Cone and smallest in traditional countries of emigration, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, or El Salvador.

International migrants constitute 30% of the population in Antigua and Barbuda, but 0% in Cuba.  Except for Cuba, the Caribbean islands have higher proportions of international migrants than Central or South America. Migration in the Andean South America has been growing, especially in the recent years due to the inflows of migrants from Venezuela. For instance, in 2019 Colombia and Peru experienced a 52% and 40% increase in migrant stock. No other country in the world experienced such a rapid increase in 2019. By comparison, the increase in other countries receiving refugees, such as Jordan, was 1.8%.

What explains LAC states’ willingness to admit Venezuelan migrants in the context of less welcoming attitudes towards migrants and refugees in other parts of the world?

By 2020, most LAC migrants originated from within LAC. LAC migrants benefitted from a high degree of regional solidarity, including bilateral protections.

Even though migration flows and policies varied across the region, LAC countries aimed to integrate migrants, especially those originating from the region.  Having signed a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements in the second half of the XX th. century, LAC countries created legal framework which favored integration of LAC citizens. Colombia, which received most Venezuelan migrants in recent years, had been the source of economic and humanitarian migration to Venezuela at the turn of the century. More recently, Colombian nationals were among the first (return) migrants departing Venezuela when Venezuela faced socio-economic instability in the recent years.

Responding to the 2019 UN migration survey, 93% of LAC governments declared that they provided non-national legal immigrants with access to justice, social security equal pay for work, public education and essential or emergency healthcare. Furthermore, LAC governments were more tolerant of migrants engaging in informal employment than other authorities in other regions: 43% of LAC governments declared having sanctions for migrants in an irregular status and 70% declared having sanctions against employers of migrants in an irregular status.  Informal employment has been as much of a blessing as it has been a curse.  On the one hand, informal labor market allowed migrants to start working soon after arrival in their host country. On the other hand, informal employment lacked in protections. This vulnerability became apparent with the onset of COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 affected Venezuelan migrants’ integration?

COVID-19 strained Venezuelan migrants’ ability to sustain themselves abroad.  In consequence, some began to return to Venezuela.

Operating on limited budgets, LAC countries had called for greater international solidarity in financing integration of Venezuelan migrants already in 2018. COVID-19 further debilitated their ability to provide migrants with education, healthcare and employment.  Venezuelans who were employed in an informal economy were among the first to lose jobs and accommodation.  Having exhausted means to sustain themselves abroad, those Venezuelans who could afford journey back and could count on family support began to return home.  However, many Venezuelan migrants had originally fled Venezuela walking. Eking out a modest living abroad, these caminantes did not save enough to return home. Therefore, there is a need for free and safe transportation for any migrants who express a genuine willingness to return home.

What challenges face Venezuelan migrants and refugees in LAC?

The twin economic and health crisis made it difficult for Venezuelans to access employment, sanitary accommodation, education and food. But a number of Venezuelans helped LAC societies cope with crisis while exposing themselves to COVID-19.

The lockdown limited migration authorities’ ability to process migrants’ residence permits, therefore some may remain in/slip back into irregular status. The perception of migrants becoming a public charge may prevent immigration authorities from regularizing migrants without evidence of fixed income or accommodation.

Already before the crisis, many Venezuelan migrants depended on food and sanitary assistance. The lockdown has limited the ability of governments and civil society to provide Venezuelan migrants with basic goods and services. The beginning of winter in the highly-elevated Andean countries will require more support whether it is food, shelter or health assistance.

Having lost jobs, some Venezuelan migrants were forced to relocate to shared accommodation. Living in shared accommodation increases migrants’ vulnerability to communicable diseases.

Many migrant children do not have access to internet necessary to continue education under the lockdown and social distancing regulations. This increases their chances of dropping from school.  Apart from education, schools provided Venezuelan children with access to sanitation, food and water.

Unemployment and price increases erode migrants’ ability to send money home. The World Bank estimates that remittance flows in LAC will decline by 20% in 2020. Already prior to the crisis Venezuela was the most expensive destination to send money home.

The flourishing of home-delivery foods in the era of social distancing has created new business for Venezuelans working as food peddlers.  Also Venezuelans with nursing or medical backgrounds, personal care or cleaning have “benefited” from COVID-19 related demand for their services. While providing income and appreciation, these frontline jobs expose Venezuelan migrants to virus and to social stigma.

Further information:

IOM (2020), Migration Data Portal. International Organization for Migration.

R4V (2020), Refugee and Migrant Response Plan 2020. May 2020 Revision. Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

UNDESA (2019), International Migration 2019. Report. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

This article is a follow up to the event: "COVID-19 and Migration in the Americas,"  sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), and co-sponsored by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS). Watch the full event:

COVID-19 and Migration in the Americas. Andrew Selee, Migration Policy Institute. Full Event