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Migrations and Polarisation in Latin America

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— 5 minutes reading time

Robert Muggah, Co-founder of the Igarapé Institute

Robert Muggah is a globally recognised specialist in security, cities, migration and climate action. He is co-founder and principal of the SecDev Group and co-founded the Igarapé Institute. Robert is also a senior adviser to McKinseys as well as the EU, OECD, UN agencies, and the World Bank. His most recent book is Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years (2020, Penguin/Random House).


Lycia Brasil, Researcher at Igarapé Institute

Lycia Brasil is a researcher at the International Peace and Security Division at Igarapé Institute and is in charge of the Forced Migration project.Lycia holds a bachelor’s in International Relations from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). She also participated in international youth conferences, representing Brazil in Finland, Russia, France, China, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Indonesia. Her research focuses on topics such as global governance, international security, forced migration and refugee and the socioeconomic impacts of organized and environmental crime in the Amazon.

Gabriela Cardim, Researcher at Igarapé Institute

Gabriela Cardim works in the International Peace and Security Division at Igarape Institute, mainly in the Forced Migrations and Cybersecurity projects. Gabriela is the Shaping Narratives Focal Point of the Migration Working Group of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth. She holds a BA in International Relations and is currently a Msc. Student in Public Health, where she researches the flows of Refugee Women in Latin America and the impacts to the Brazilian Public Health.

This article is part of a series in which leading experts reflect on emerging trends for cities seeking to address hate, polarisation and extremism.

At this very moment, almost 80 million men, women and children are on the move, violently dislocated from their homes and livelihoods. There are more refugees and internally displaced people in the world than at any point since the Second World War. And the challenges are set to worsen. Hundreds of millions more will soon be forced to move as a result of droughts, floods, rising seas and other climatic shifts.

No part of the planet is immune, not least Latin America. The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has made it the current global epicenter of forced displacement, with some 4.5 million refugees fleeing to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as well as Western Europe and North America. Mexico and the northern triangle are also hot spots, beset by gang violence and drug wars: since 2017, over a million Central Americans have crossed the border into the US.

In an era of surging nationalism and deepening polarization, forced migration is a hot button issue. Well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies were gaining traction. With populist leaders at the helm, these measures are generating results. In 2019, the US took in the lowest caseload of refugees in the country’s modern history.

COVID-19 provides a pretext for some countries to deny refugees and displaced the protection and care they may have received in the past. The United States and a number of European governments such as Italy, Greece and Hungary, have been quick to implement more restrictive barriers to entry. In March 2020, for example, the US expelled 900 adolescents and children from the country on the grounds that no asylum requests would be granted due to COVID-19.

Countries that have long championed the protection of people suffering from persecution, conflict and violence have dramatically changed course. In June 2020, the United States tighten the criteria for recognizing refugee status. By sending the message that new arrivals are not welcome and will be turned away, governments hope to deter would-be applicants. These moves are resonating across Latin America.

COVID-19 lockdowns risk making a bad situation much worse. In Colombia, restrictions have contributed to rising protests from displaced populations seeking assistance. Levels of fear and xenophobia are likewise rising, directed largely against Venezuelans as well as internally displaced Colombians. Through social media, Colombian citizens have spoken out against the presence of Venezuelans in public spaces into cities.

Meanwhile, President Maduro has also sought to limit the return of Venezuelans who fled on the grounds they pose a health risk. He has been unable to keep at least 95,000 returning from Colombia. And in Brazil, in addition to shutting the country’s borders, the Bolsonaro administration has restricted several categories of migrants from entering the country. This has resulted in a 9,200 percent increase in deportation of migrants from Brazil since 2019.

In contrast to their national counterparts, a growing number of Latin American cities are stepping up policies and programs to safeguard the rights of refugees and displaced populations. For example, São Paulo established a metropolitan policy for migrants before COVID-19, the first of its kind in Brazil. The city also set up a Council for Migrants comprising local politicians, residents and displaced people to promote accountability and transparency. Brazil’s largest city also actively recruits migrants as public servants, manages centers for social assistance, particularly in relation to education, health, and job opportunities.

In Bogotá, the city has also worked to promote the integration of new Venezuelan arrivals. The so-called Migrants Assistant Route was created in 2018 and consists of a package of services to support economic migrants and refugees. The SuperCADE Social is a one-stop shop, typically based near major transport centres such as bus terminals. It integrates a range of social service providers and international humanitarian and development agencies to attend to the needs of people on the move, especially children.

And in the US, there are many examples of cities working to protect and support migrants and refugees. There are over 1,000 sanctuary cities and counties spread out across the country. Major urban centres such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston have deployed a host of specialized services and programs to support undocumented migrants and other new arrivals. This approach has drawn the ire of some federal officials who fundamentally oppose such policies.

Refugees and displaced people risk being doubly penalized in the COVID-19 era. They are being attacked by populists who claim they threaten domestic jobs and contribute to crime, while simultaneously they are punished by politicians exploiting fear of disease and contagion. Neither claim is supported by any credible evidence or data, but both cut deep when economies and public health systems are in crisis. With federal and national governments tightening restrictions on asylum and immigration and sending dangerous messages throughout the continent, city-led initiatives have offered the humanitarian alternative. Internationalising their approaches and supporting their efforts to protect the vulnerable, shelter the persecuted and bring together communities must be an urgent priority, not least for Latin America.