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Rethinking migration in Latin America

Aug 17,2022 - Last updated at Aug 17,2022

By Erika Mouynes and Meghan Lopez

PANAMA CITY  —  Most countries in Latin America have a long history of receptiveness to migration. But an unprecedented surge in 2021 in the number of people being displaced by political unrest, economic instability, violence, pervasive inequality, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors means that many governments’ efforts to protect migrants are falling short of the intentions embodied in their policies.

One of the most worrying features of the current migration situation in Latin America is the gap between each country’s intentions as expressed through their migration policies and their abilities to provide displaced people with the protections they need. This is usually linked to insufficient financial and technical support from the international community.

Countries across the region are going to incredible lengths to manage the current migration crisis, prioritising programmes according to what their limited resources allow. But the variation in approaches is contributing further to the movement of people because migrants and asylum seekers tend to go wherever they can gain the most security for themselves and their families.

Another problem is the lack of long-term solutions. Consider the recent crisis involving Haitians, both those heading for the US-Mexico border and those stuck in southern Mexico: Many of the thousands of Haitians who traversed Panama in 2021 had previously sought safety in South America following the devastating 2010 earthquake, but were unable to find long-term security.

Some migration pathways are historic, representing routes that people have used to flee danger or pursue new opportunities for many generations. But humanitarian crises and the migration waves they produce have been mounting. In Panama alone, the number of people crossing the Darién Gap rose from 6,500 in 2020 to 124,875 in the first 11 months of 2021, almost a twentyfold increase.

Governments and international organisations with local civil society must devise a more effective, collaborative, people-centred strategy for managing these crises. Recognising its own role along the migration route, Panama has stepped up its efforts to provide migrants with medical attention. People passing through receive basic medical aid and are tested for COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Many migrants and asylum seekers arrive in the country malnourished and injured from the perilous journey through the Darién Gap, a dense jungle that interrupts the Pan-American highway between Panama and Colombia. There, they encounter disease, deadly animals, and a treacherous landscape. Women and children, in particular, are vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, trafficking and extortion by criminal groups. Even more disturbing, one in every five migrants in the region is a child, and 80 per cent of them are under the age of five, a crucial period for their long-term development.

No single country can manage this issue on its own. The situation demands an international initiative to monitor migration flows and provide care for displaced people as they cross through Latin America. We need a system in which every country shares responsibility for protecting people on the move, including the provision of basic goods such as medical care, food, psychosocial support, and security. Panama has been shouldering this burden in Darién, but as the number of migrants continues to increase, a multi-country response becomes more urgent by the day.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has long advocated policy frameworks (or compacts) to aggregate resources for refugee and migrant care. The idea is to bring together donors, host countries, and development and humanitarian organisations to create systems that are capable of meeting these vulnerable populations’ needs. Within these frameworks, host governments commit to long-term, inclusive policies for protecting displaced populations. In return, donors and financial institutions pledge long-term financing to support implementation.

This “compact” model has already been implemented in Jordan, with support from the World Bank. It could provide an initial framework for improving conditions for migrants across Latin America. As a first step towards that goal, national governments should focus on coordinating and harmonising their migration policies. Mechanisms exist to help donors and host countries forge agreements on concrete financing commitments, burden-sharing, cross-border policy harmonisation, and the provision of security, documentation, education, employment, healthcare and pathways to citizenship. But much more attention and funding will be needed to realise the promise of these agreements.

To prevent future crises, we need to address the root causes of migration, not least violent conflict, COVID-19, climate change, systemic inequality, and the lack of economic opportunities in source countries. That means not only creating jobs and implementing development programs but also delivering effective humanitarian responses and supportive protection policies.

The challenge is to break the self-perpetuating cycle of migration and displacement by creating a safe and secure environment both for those who have attempted to rebuild their lives elsewhere and for those who have returned to their countries of origin. For example, the 100,000-plus asylum seekers and migrants from Haiti who are currently living in South America should be given the opportunity to settle there permanently, so that they are not forced to keep moving.

With the number of displaced people crossing Latin America increasing rapidly, Panama and the IRC are calling on governments, humanitarian organisations, and multilateral institutions to act together. We must protect vulnerable people and work towards a world where they can seek meaningful opportunities in their own countries or elsewhere, in full compliance with international standards and immigration laws. Most migrants and asylum seekers today have no such choice.

If the international community does not devote more resources to caring for migrants along their journeys, their problems will simply grow worse, and humanitarian crises in countries across the region will become more frequent and severe. We must break the cycle before it spins out of control.

 

Erika Mouynes is minister of foreign affairs for Panama. Meghan Lopez is regional vice president for Latin America at the International Rescue Committee. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. 

www.project-syndicate.org

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