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Mobility in immobility: Latin American migrants trapped amid COVID-19

In an opinion piece for Open Democracy Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza from Queen Mary's School of Geography argues that states urgently need to rethink their individual responses to COVID-19 and coordinate a collective approach to include and protect all people living in their territories.

27 May 2020

A group of migrants travelling
A group of migrants travelling

The impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America have been felt far and wide. Physical distancing and lockdown measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus have brought economies to the brink of collapse and negatively impacted people’s livelihoods, testing governments’ leadership, and exacerbating the structural inequalities that have historically affected the region.

Migrants increasingly vulnerable

Migrant and refugee populations in Latin America have been one of the most affected by the pandemic. As part of an ongoing regional and interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring the impacts of COVID-19 and the associated governmental responses on migrants’ and refugees’ lives, we argue that the measures taken, particularly border closures and lockdown, have exacerbated the conditions of precarity and vulnerability experienced by many migrants in the region.

This is so, given their high rates of job informality and insecurity, overcrowded and precarious living conditions, and limited access to health services and social security, among others[i]. Thus, migrant and refugee populations are not only more vulnerable to the risks associated with the virus, but the governmental responses to the crisis have also deepened pre-existing inequalities and gaps between the migrant and national populations in terms of labour, housing and health rights.

In this context, the pandemic is reshaping – already changing – mobility dynamics in the region and producing new migration patterns with attendant drivers and consequences: a sort of ‘mobility in immobility’. In particular, the unprecedented context of border restrictions and pandemic mitigation measures, have provoked two distinct but interrelated contradictory processes: return and forced (im)mobility.

On the one hand, the exacerbation of migrants’ already precarious living conditions have led many to take extraordinary 'bottom-up' actions to guarantee their livelihoods, leading to mass returns – often by foot – to their crises-ridden countries of origin or re-emigration to other places, nationally or internationally.

On the other hand, the region has also witnessed reinforced patterns of involuntary/forced immobility propitiated by 'top-down' measures such as increasing express deportations – often without due process – and by the limitations on cross-border movements and the ability to seek international protection imposed by border closures.

Examples of these new trends abound. Bolivian and Peruvian migrants in Chile were some of the first ones to start their journeys back when the lockdown measures translated in workplace closures and loss of jobs. Unable to return home due to border closure, they became trapped in border cities waiting for the opportunity to cross back home. A group of 50 Peruvians started to walk up north from Chile’s capital, Santiago - determined to walk more than 2,000 kilometres - in order to get media attention and help from the Peruvian government to get home[ii]. Similar episodes have been documented among Paraguayan migrants in Brazil, with hundreds trapped at the bridge that connects the two countries at Iguaçu Falls, without masks and under precarious sanitary conditions.

Impact on Latin America

The most dramatic return has been of Venezuelans. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived to Latin America in the middle of the largest human displacement in the region’s recent history, which has led more than 5 million Venezuelans to flee the country’s social, economic and political crisis since 2014. With COVID-19 threatening their livelihoods, thousands of migrants residing in Colombia[iii], Ecuador, Chile and Peru, who depended on informal work to survive, are making a dangerous reverse journey back home, even though the country continues immersed in a seemingly never-ending crisis.

Meanwhile, the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico Programme, an agreement that enables the United States to send non-Mexican asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their immigration proceedings, is having even more dire consequences. Due to the current suspension of the programme, more than 14,000 asylum seekers - mostly from Central America - are trapped in 11 border cities along northern Mexico.

Many of them have nowhere to live because the shelters reduced their quotas to guarantee hygiene and distancing measures. In a similar situation are those who have been deported from the United States. Despite the closure of the border and the suspension of all non-essential travel by a joint US-Mexico agreement, deportations have not stopped during the pandemic. Currently some of this population is moving to other Mexican cities in search for better life options, abandoning their asylum claims and placing themselves in conditions of greater vulnerability.

While some of these dynamics are being observed in other parts of the world, in Latin-American countries these developments seem to be taking a dangerous turn and opening up a series of questions about how they may impact the lives of migrants and refugees, their effective access to social and economic rights and prospects for integration, as well as how they may change regional migration governance after the pandemic.

The new normal post-pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Latin America, the dynamics of regional migration governance and patterns of mobility were already changing, as many countries were being transformed from sending and transit to reception countries.

The region is now home to about 12 million migrants and refugees, to a large extent as a result of the progressively stringent migration restrictions imposed in the global north and the increasing externalization of borders. While Latin America has been widely praised for its response to the Venezuelan exodus - considering that 80% of Venezuelan migrants and refugees have settled there -, the region has also been witnessing the spread of ad-hoc measures, the lack of applicability of current frameworks for protection and the increasing securitization of migration, following similar governance trends to those in the north.

The question now is how migration governance and migration patterns may change in Latin America after the pandemic, and if governments will seize on the opportunity to institutionalise policies such as the militarisation and closure of borders and forced immobility initially imposed across the region in an effort to contain the virus.

Some initial signs are worrisome. In Chile, the government and some media outlets have been associating COVID-19 to irregular migration, leading to an increase in xenophobic attacks against the migrant population in the country. The government of Sebastian Piñera also declared ‘urgency’ to the discussion of a new migration bill in the senate. Civil society and academia have been warning about the risks of discussing such important law in the middle of the sanitary crisis and without substantial participation by civil society organisations or wider consensus.

Similarly, as UNHCR and IOM recently alerted, the pandemic has also exacerbated the already rising levels of discrimination, stigmatisation, racism and xenophobia against Venezuelan, Haitian, Central American and other migrants and refugees in several countries such as Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico.

Given the heterogeneous legal security and access to social protection afforded to migrants and refugees in the countries of the region, there has been very little in the way of targeted policies to fully guarantee the rights of these populations in the midst of the pandemic. Although some countries such as Brazil and Uruguay have allowed regularised migrants to benefit from the health and socioeconomic programmes put in place to minimise the effects of the pandemic, others have turned a blind eye to practices that limit migrants’ access to social protection and the exercise of their rights (such as residential evictions or lack of access to emergency programmes due to irregular status or expired documentation). At the same time, migration and asylum procedures such as visa and residency permits, asylum interviews, among others, have been either suspended or delayed across the region.

An uncertain future

It is impossible to know when and how we will go back to normality or what the new normal will be. What is clear is that migrants and refugees across Latin America, including many who contribute as essential workers in the health sector, the food industry and delivery services, are facing exacerbated conditions of precarity and vulnerability as a result of the responses to the pandemic. Migrants and refugees have also been exposed to new risks as they are deported, try to return home or go somewhere else, despite border closures.

This scenario has brought to light the key role of civil society, local governments and migrant organisations trying to help migrants meet their essential needs, such as food and shelter. International organisations are also trying to raise awareness and funding to deal with this crisis. While pivotal, none of these actions is a substitute for state measures. Governments across the region have been closing their borders and forcing immobility. But mobility continues within immobility, and states urgently need to rethink their individual responses and coordinate a collective approach to include and protect all people living in their territories.

This opinion piece by Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza, Dr Gisela P. Zapata and Dr Luciana Gandini was originally published in Open Democracy on 26 May 2020.