Hope and Hurdles: Refugees’ long road to social and economic integration in Latin America

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Hope and Hurdles: Refugees’ long road to social and economic integration in Latin America Photo: Greta Granados - World Bank

Imagine fleeing your home, not out of choice, but necessity, driven by fears of persecution or the stark realities of survival amidst conflict, insecurity, or severe human rights abuses. The journey doesn’t end with crossing a border; it merely enters a new phase of waiting and uncertainty. In seeking safety, one enters a bureaucratic labyrinth for accessing a right to stay, work and provide for one’s family that can extend not just for months but for years, and sometimes decades.

This is the story of over 14.2 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean: over 7.7 people in need of international protection, 5 million asylum seekers, close to 1 million refugees, and more than 90,000 people at risk of statelessness. According to the latest data from UNHCR, by mid-2023, 42 percent of new asylum applications in the world were made by nationals of Latin America and the Caribbean countries and represent seven of the top ten source countries for new asylum applications globally. Most come from neighboring countries and remain within the region, showing exemplary generosity and solidarity of host governments. Behind every statistic, there is a person, a family, a story of resilience and hope. 


Pending Asylum Request Vs. Wait Time by Country (Excluding US)

The World Bank














The refugee and asylum system must be protected, but also strengthened and supported. These systems which were built for relatively small volumes of people applying, need to be reinforced according to the current challenges considering the dimension and magnitude of displacement in the region. Thousands of rapidly increasing asylum claims have overwhelmed national systems and call for different approaches. 

Asylum seekers and government authorities face a staggering backlog, one that leaves many families waiting in uncertainty. While all countries in the region face overwhelming volumes, some experience a higher number of requests than others.

There are tools to address this. Decentralization, digitalization, and simplification of procedures can improve the processing of asylum claims and speed decision-making. Registration, differentiated case management, country-of-origin information exchange platforms, legal aid, and other initiatives reduce backlog. 

More efficient systems allow asylum-seekers to better integrate into their new communities, working and contributing economically. Countries should grant automatic work permits to asylum seekers to avoid their remaining unemployed or working informally.  Being able to work is not just about economic survival; it’s about dignity, integration, and contributing to the society that hosts you. Further, the investment decisions that families make, when thinking about housing, education, or opening a business, are radically different depending on whether there is legal and permanent certainty to stay.

Recognizing these challenges and opportunities, many countries in the region are taking steps to streamline the process with support from the World Bank and UNHCR. For instance, adapting institutional and regulatory frameworks for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants has been a focus for countries like Uruguay, Peru, and Brazil, particularly in response to the arrival of Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Mexico has made notable strides in this area by increasing the capacity of its refugee assistance programs, allowing for quicker integration into the labor market. Despite offering temporary yet renewable work permits to asylum seekers, many employers in Peru are unaware of these permits, forcing them into informal employment at higher risk exploitation and abuse. Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, and Uruguay have recently taken positive steps to reduce the backlog of asylum claims and strengthen their asylum system.


Supporting refugee integration in Latin America

But it’s not just about improving systems for processing asylum claims. Investing in the communities that host refugees is crucial.

The World Bank’s 2023 World Development Report highlights how displacement can exacerbate inequalities and strain local services. Effective responses include investing in shared infrastructure and services that benefit both refugees and host communities, fostering social cohesion and alleviating the pressures on already limited resources.

Addressing the refugee crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean is both a humanitarian and a development agenda. It is UNHCR´s global mandate and an outcome indicator of the new WBG Scorecard. It requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders involved. From digitalizing national registries to increasing the availability of trained personnel and improving facilities, every step taken can help reduce the backlog and, more importantly, reduce the human cost of forced displacement.

At the same time, streamlining processes and enabling fast-track regularization efforts for large population groups such as children seeking asylum could be strengthened and promoted. For instance, countries such as Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay, and Chile could make a greater use of existing special migratory categories to expedite the processing of vulnerable groups, such as children and their families, through fast-track procedures. By streamlining processes and ensuring refugees can work and integrate into their new communities, we not only help them rebuild their lives but also enrich our societies with their skills, cultures, and perspectives.

As we consider the road ahead, it's clear that the path to being recognized as a refugee is more than a procedural issue—it's a critical lifeline for those seeking safety and a future. Let’s continue to advocate for and support measures that respect the dignity of every individual and strive towards solutions that uphold human rights and promote inclusive growth.

After all, in the face of such adversity, our humanity is our most powerful ally.


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Benoît Bosquet

Director for Sustainable Development for Latin America and Caribbean

José Samaniego

Regional Director for the Americas - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

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