Published on People Move

Addressing the human mobility consequences of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean

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While Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has become the new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, the social isolation measures adopted to “flatten the curve” have translated into a severehuman development crisis. The real GDP in the region should dropby 5.2% in 2020, unemployment increase by 3.7 percentage points and 28 million more people could end up living below the poverty line. The COVID-19 crisis has also had several repercussions in terms of human mobility.

With the notable exception of Mexico, all LAC countries have adopted
COVID-19 related travel restrictions. Border closings imply that international migrants, including refugees, asylum seekers and returnees, are more prone to go through irregular channels, thus feeding the smuggling industry and endangering their lives. Due to quarantine measures and the lack of livelihoods opportunities,a growing number of migrants are also returning to their home countries (e.g., Nicaragua and Venezuela).

Migrants are victims of growing discrimination and xenophobia, as some people consider they are responsible for the arrival and/or spread of the new coronavirus. In a context of rising unemployment and growing competition for jobs, local populations also think migrants are “taking their jobs”.

Migrants, especially those with an irregular status,have limited access to health services and often lack the necessary information and basic sanitary conditions to
protect themselves from contagion and respect social distancing. Most of them need to keep working in the informal sector to survive.This puts them in a vulnerable situation as health services become overwhelmed and are not always open to people without secure social protection or identification cards. Migrant women, in particular health professionals and domestic and care workers, face a higher likelihood of virus exposure. Quarantines also expose them to domestic and intimate partner violence.

COVID-19 has increased migrants’ socioeconomic vulnerability, especially of those working in the informal sector.Many small and medium-size businesses have collapsed with disastrous impacts on unprotected workers. Migrants were and continue likely to be among the first to lose their jobs and/or wages, and often are not eligible for social-relief packages.The global economic crisis has also translated into a drop in remittances that affects recipients’ household and origin communities. The World Bank estimates that the decline in remittances should be about 19.3% in 2020 in LAC. Countries where remittances represent a high share of GDP, such as Haiti (37.1% of GDP in 2019), Honduras (22%), El Salvador (21%) and Jamaica (16.4%), will be particularly hit hard.

The severity of the COVID-19 crisis requires that governments in the region, in coordination with a wide range of local actors, including the private sector, and with the support of international cooperation, adopt measures to minimize the costs. This implies to guarantee protection and grant access to services, taking into account the rights, needs and vulnerabilities of migrant populations and host communities, and provide them with livelihood opportunities.Public authorities need to broaden access to medical care and existing social safety net programmes, and invest in health and care facilities, open to all individuals, no matter their migration status. It is also important to fund temporary shelters for homeless people, including migrants, and adapt immigration detention centres and temporary facilities for deported people to prevent the risk of virus spreading, in safe environments that respect their dignity and rights.

Several countries have adopted measures to protect migrants and avoid they become irregular during quarantines. In Colombia, the validity period of the Special Stay Permit (PEP)for Venezuelan nationals does not run during the state of emergency. A humanitarian corridor has also been put in place to allow Venezuelan migrants return home.Argentina and Peru have allowed foreign health professionals to practise as part of the COVID-19 response.Several countries have adopted measures to mitigate the negative impact of social isolation. Brazil, for instance, implemented an emergency fund for migrants working in the informal sector or unemployed.

In addition, early-recovery responses for migrants and host communitiescould help maximize opportunities from COVID-19 through initiatives such as cash and non-cash transfer schemes, wage subsidies to support SMEs affected by the recession, post-quarantine cash-for-work programmes, and technical and financial support to self-employment and entrepreneurship. These mechanisms should consider the specific barriers faced by women, such as unpaid responsibilities, limited mobility outside the household and gender-based violence, which prevent them from participating in livelihoods schemes.

Digital innovation plays a key role in helping reach isolated populations, through on-line and gender-sensitive mechanisms that facilitate information, assess needs and provide access to services. Investing in e-training programmes can foster skills development in areas,especially those linked to the Gig economy,that require home-based work or/and that are in increasing demand.

Integrating migrants and host communities into the COVID-19 response,while combatting discrimination and xenophobia, is not only a way to mitigate the negative impacts of the crisis on these populations. It also helps strengthen social cohesion, peaceful coexistence and foster migrants’ contribution to their host countries’ economic recovery and sustainable development.


David Khoudour

Regional Migration Advisor, UNDP Latin America and the Caribbean

Jairo Acuña-Alfaro

Team Leader Governance, UNDP Latin America and the Caribbean

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