Do border policies reduce flows of Venezuelan migrants?


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In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18

Conventional wisdom holds that immigration policies, restrictive or receptive, have sizeable effects on the flow of migrants into a given country. Leaders in several countries have displayed this thinking in recent years when suddenly closing their borders (for example, in Hungary); building walls (as in the US); or, by contrast, accepting refugees without visas (Jordan). But host nation policies are not the only or even the main driver of migration. In fact, the list of factors driving the decision to migrate is long. They include access to healthcare or labor markets, the skill of the migrant, the presence of networks and family, distance and contiguity, a collapsing economy, and an encroached conflict at home are among the many pull and push factors that play a role in explaining migration flows (Ozden and Wagner, 2018). Hence, the question of whether “border policies” (policies affecting the entry and/or exit of migrants in a given country) or push and pull factors are more decisive remains an open—and critical policy—question with regard to the current exodus of Venezuelans, an estimated 4.6 million of whom have left the country since 2015 (according to R4V 2019). 

Let’s look at the best data we have: from January 2015 to late 2017, flows of Venezuelan migrants were steady but low. Countries first displayed receptive policies such as open borders or the granting of temporary special entry permits and/or visas.During that period, we observe what appears to be little sensitivity of flows to country policies during this period. As the crisis deepened and the exodus widened by 2018, countries shifted to more restrictive policies in response, including deadlines for temporary permits, additional requests for existing visas or passports, the requirement of new visas, ceasing to accept national ID cards, and the outright closing of borders. In this second period we observe greater (if variable) sensitivity of flows associated with policy changes.In fact, we find events where receptive polices are followed by decreasing inflows (Colombia, December 2018) and restrictive policies with increasing inflows (Peru, March 2019). We also find positive and negative net flows following restrictive and receptive policies, making difficult to tease out a firm conclusion (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Policy shifts and net flow of migrants in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

Policy Shift

Looking closer to the migrants flow data, taking all five episodes of restrictive policies in Ecuador and Peru (Colombia did not implement restrictive policies), four are linked with increases in the balance of migrants during the month prior to their implementation and one with decreases in net flows. Of the five receptive policies in Colombia and Peru (Ecuador did not implement receptive policies), two are associated with increases and three with decreases in net flows prior to the implementation of the interventions. The magnitude of average changes to net flow varies widely per episode, from several hundred migrants to several tens of thousands. If we conduct the same migration analysis for the period of one month following the implementation, results continue to depict an inconclusive pattern. 

In conclusion, there is no clear relationship between flows of migrants and policy shifts in the context of the Venezuelan crisis. If anything, it seems that policies might respond to flows as much as flows responding to policies. The perception that restrictive policies successfully restrict inflows of migrants needs to be revisited, at least in the Venezuelan context. For example, a recent study by the World Bank estimates that more than half of Venezuelan migrants to Peru move within and across its borders for family reunification and labor opportunities conditions, regardless of the actual entry policy. Beyond border policies, more attention needs to be paid to interventions successfully affecting the pull and push factors in Venezuela and host countries.