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Latin America’s migration problems

In a region shaped by migration, the old welcomes are wearing out

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The Americas were shaped by migration, mostly from Europe. Now Asians and Africans are arriving, and there is desperate intra-continental movement in search of work. But the old welcomes are wearing out.

This article was written for the ‘Outside In’ blog of Le Monde Diplomatique by Gustavo Fuchs and is reproduced here by kind permission of the publisher. You can read the original here.


Jair Bolsonaro assumes power on 1st January, 2019.
Photo: Senado Federal

The election of Brazil’s far-right Jair Bolsonaro reflects the current international wave of nationalist populism and xenophobic hatred, and his own disdain for minorities and immigrants, whom he called ‘the scum of the earth’, are well known.

But although he stands out as Latin America’s most outspokenly hateful politician, others there have used fear of immigrants to win elections. Chile’s president, Sebastian Piñera, won in 2017 by campaigning for migration reform, describing foreigners as potential criminals and warning that families could be deported, even if it meant separating parents and children (1). Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, passed a decree, criticised by human rights groups, which tightens migration controls and creates a faster deportation process (2).

This new focus on migration in a continent historically populated by immigrants worries human rights bodies. Most migration in Latin America remains intra-regional. Chile has mainly Haitian, Peruvian and Colombian immigrants; Venezuelans are the largest group migrating to neighbouring Colombia. However, as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says in its 2018 report, global migratory trends are changing rapidly: there is now a significant increase in migrants from Africa and Asia to Latin America.

Most extra-continental migration happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the early development of Latin America’s nation-states, helping shape their identity. In the 20th century, it became relatively rare. An Indian migrating to Costa Rica was unusual in the 1980s: Naresh Khanna, a doctor in chemical engineering who came in 1986, remembered: ‘At the time of my arrival, there was only me and one other man from India… Today there are many Indian families. I fell in love with my wife, and she brought me here to meet her family. It was hard to get in and [the authorities] would not recognise our marriage, but once here, it felt impossible to leave.’

The welcoming nation

Costa Rica welcomes the second highest number of immigrants (relative to its population) in Latin America: almost 13% of its 4.9 million inhabitants were born outside its borders (3). According to the 2011 national census, most come from neighbouring Nicaragua, Colombia and the US.

A group of Cuban migrants alarmed Central America in 2016 by trying to reach the US, fearing that, under a new administration, they would lose privileges granted by the Helms-Burton Act of 1999. Most were stranded in Costa Rica after Panama and Nicaragua closed their borders. The authorities found many African and Haitian migrants among them (some African nationals claimed to be from Haiti). ‘Most of them left from Costa Rica, they were very clear in their goal of reaching the US,’ said Nacer Wabeau, an Algerian lecturer at the University of Costa Rica who volunteered to translate migrants’ statements to local authorities. ‘Some of them stay for short periods in different countries, working to save up and continue their journey [to the US]. Others run out of money and then decide to settle.’

As Europe tightened its borders, migrants began looking to the Americas for new routes to a better life.

Although the 2016 crisis made these extra-continental migrants visible, Wabeau dates the migratory trend to 2010 (4). As Europe tightened its borders, migrants began looking to the Americas for new routes to a better life. The Costa Rican government believes that up to 20,000 African nationals transited through it to North America; most had entered through Ecuador and Brazil (5). Wabeau said 14 different nationalities were counted among the migrants: ‘Later, during a visit I made in 2016 to Mexico, an academic studying migration told me they had recorded some 59 different nationalities at the border with the US.’

The Mexican authorities recorded up to 700 African migrants crossing daily in 2017 through Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala, many attracted by the money they can earn during the harvest season. Wabeau said it was common to hear stories about the wages for agricultural labour, but it is the dream of the US that fires the imagination, and aspirations.

A recent study shows these migrants are not only drawn to the US for economic reasons; many come from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea or Sudan where there is political turmoil and violence. They travel supported by elaborate networks, using technology and contacts to make their way through complex routes and border crossings (6).

This intra-regional and extra-continental migration was barely noticed by Latin Americans — many of whom consider themselves mestizos (mixed race), but this is changing. Even in welcoming Costa Rica, xenophobic sentiment is increasing. Far-right politicians from the evangelical National Restoration Party (which lost the presidential runoff vote in March) claim that migration is a bigger threat than the looming fiscal crisis. In July, 500 people held a violent rally against immigrants, ending with an unprecedented attempt at lynching. The protesters said they were responding to the influx of Nicaraguans fleeing violence and persecution. Selective xenophobia against Nicaraguans is not new, but it has never before reached the level of organised violence.

There have been other similar protests recently, in Tijuana, Mexico, against Central Americans fleeing violence and in the border town of Pacaraima, Brazil, where mobs burnt refugee camps for fleeing Venezuelans. In Quito, Ecuador, and Lima, Peru, protests against Venezuelan migrants may have influenced both governments’ decision to demand a valid passport from Venezuelans seeking asylum.

Fake news and prejudice have blended to increase the anger and concern of local communities who feel migration risks unemployment in already strained economies.

Legal vacuum

Nicolas Boeglin, law professor at the University of Costa Rica, believes that lax discrimination laws expose migrants and refugees to hate crime. ‘There is nothing in Costa Rican law that prohibits hate crimes or hate speech, even though the country has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD, 1969) which calls on countries to criminally sanction discrimination.’

A survey of 29 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean found that only 11 nations recognise hate crimes or hate speech (directly or indirectly) in their penal codes. Others do not address discrimination as a legal offence (7).

As migrants become asylum seekers, and asylum seekers become refugees, a more generalised hatred against foreigners has tested legal conceptions.

Enrique Sanchez, a lawmaker from Costa Rica’s governing Citizens Action Party, proposes a new law to penalise hate crimes, hate speech and discrimination. It defines discrimination as broadly as possible, including prejudice based on race or gender, and also on migratory status (asylum seeker, refugee or stateless) going beyond discrimination based on ‘national origin’ as categorised in ICERD. He said: ‘The aim is to guarantee everyone respect and non-discrimination, independent of their nationality or their migratory status.’

The Organisation of American States has tried since 2000 to promote an American convention against racism, discrimination and intolerance, with little success. The initiative was revamped by a working group, which has issued a draft but not yet a legally binding document.

Hope for the future?

During a UN General Assembly session last December, more than 150 member states voted to adopt the Global Compact on Migration. The voluntary agreement is based on 23 objectives that aim to manage migration and its socio-political challenges. It outlines obligations towards migrants, already contained in international law. In a bold step forward, it calls upon its signatories to eliminate all forms of discrimination, potentially committing them to enact laws that punish xenophobic discrimination.

The compact has already been rejected by Italy, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Austria, all ruled by populist far-right parties or coalitions. This position has been followed by Brazil (8), Chile, the Dominican Republic and the US, where populist leaders have used xenophobia to advance their agendas. Not many countries oppose the compact on the basis of politics, but states that have avoided legislating against discrimination view it with caution.

Enrique Sanchez said ‘there is a lot of prejudice and misconceptions when it comes to these crimes, some lawmakers think that they will limit freedom of expression, but they don’t understand that these actions fall outside the right to free expression.’

Xenophobia is not defined thoroughly in international law documents. Until recently, the most common approach was outlined in ICERD as discrimination based on national origin. As migrants become asylum seekers, and asylum seekers become refugees, a more generalised hatred against foreigners has tested legal conceptions. (9) Naresh Khanna said: ‘I’ve always understood human rights to be equal for all, but it seems that some nationalities’ human rights matter more than others.’

Gustavo Fuchs Gustavo Fuchs is a journalist and consultant based in Costa Rica.

Main image (added by LAB): Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. Source: Episcopal Conference of Colombia


(1) CNN Chile, ‘Sebastián Piñera sobre migrantes: “Cerraremos fronteras a los que vengan a delinquir”’ 14 June 2017. (Sebastian Pinera on migrants: “We will close the border to those coming to commit crimes”)

(2) Pablo Gentili, ‘La nueva política migratoria argentina: control y exclusión’, El País, 24 July 2017. (The new Argentine migratory policy: control and exclusion).

(3) According to the most recent estimate. See OECD-FUNDEVI, ‘Interacciones entre Políticas Públicas, Migración y Desarrollo en Costa Rica,’ Éditions OCDE 2017. (Interactions between public policy, migration and development in Costa Rica)

(4) Mariana Echandi, ‘Africans and Asians attracted to Latin America as a migration route’, UNHCR, www.unhcr.org

(5) Anastasia Moloney, ‘Surge of African migrants brave Latin America jungle trek for U.S. dream,’ Reuters, 16 January 2017.

(6) Drotbohm Heike and Nanneke Winters, Transnational Lives en Route: African Trajectories of Displacement and Emplacement across Central America, Working Papers of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, 2018.

(7) Eduardo Bertoni, ‘Estudio sobre la prohibición de la incitación al odio en las Américas,’ Organization of American States. (‘Study on the prohibition of the incitement of hatred in the Americas’).

(8) Although the current government signed the compact, Bolsonaro says he will withdraw as soon as he takes office in January 2019.

(9) Perhaps the clearest example was the case of Rabbae and others v Netherlands (18 November 2016) brought to the UN Human Rights Committee. The European Court of Human Rights has broadened the scope of hate speech in Vejdeland and Others (9 February 2012) to include protection for sexuality and gender minorities.

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