According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 100 million people worldwide have been driven from their homes by natural disasters, political repression, conflicts and violence. Over 20 million — one in five — of these migrants are in the Western Hemisphere.
More than 7 million Venezuelans have been forced out by political repression and economic collapse. Close to 2 million Haitians, more than 1 million Cubans, and hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans and other Central Americans too have fled authoritarianism, poverty, and violence.
Although many set their sights on the United States, the majority remain in the region. Colombia alone hosts some 2.5 million Venezuelans; Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Panama absorb another 3 million. Nearly half of Nicaragua’s escapees are in Costa Rica, while hundreds of thousands of Haitians are in the Dominican Republic and, somewhat surprisingly, Chile.
Latin American governments have often welcomed these wayfarers, setting up residential neighborhoods, offering services, and doling out working papers. But as the numbers escalate, they struggle to house, feed, educate, and cure the millions on the run. Immigration agencies were already understaffed and underfunded. And some nations lack the basic legal rules and frameworks to incorporate refugees, asylum seekers, and aspiring residents.
As the pressures mount, so too have the backlashes. Many nations have scuttled work permits, ended temporary residency visas, limited paths to citizenship, and even militarized borders as migrants are increasingly seen as a fiscal drain and a political liability.
Economic studies offer a different take. Scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology find migrants are far more likely to start businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens, adding to the economy and government coffers especially over the medium to long term. Aggregate data show the same: At just over 3% of the world’s population, migrants fuel more than 9% of global GDP.
Country-specific studies in Latin America attest to the benefits too. For instance, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that while migrants comprise 9% of Costa Rica’s population, they produce almost 12% of its GDP. The International Monetary Fund forecasts Venezuelan migrants will boost economic output in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru by an additional 2.5% to 4.5% over the rest of this decade.
Recent Latin American history supports such predictions. After being blacklisted by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002, thousands of engineers and petro-scientists working for state-owned energy company PDVSA left for Colombia. Over the next decade, they helped almost double Colombia’s oil production. The labor of other displaced Venezuelans has boosted Colombia’s coffee output. In Chile, Venezuelan doctors brought health care to its farther reaches, bettering the lives of locals.
And migrants provide at least a partial solution to looming demographic challenges. Latin America isn’t as young as it once was. In Chile and Uruguay, more people are already leaving the workforce than entering each year. Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico will follow in the next decade, given current trends. The United States has long boosted its workforce and economic productivity through migration; some nations in Latin America could similarly benefit from following its lead.
Yet the true potential economic upside of migration requires integration. To start, every nation needs basic legal frameworks for asylum, refugees, and paths to citizenship so migrants aren’t left in legal limbo. But as a regional phenomenon, today’s migration wave also needs regional solutions. At the 2022 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles 20 countries across the hemisphere signed onto a vision to manage migration together. “Latin American nations are having the same migration conversations,” says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “Now they need to set the same principles, and work toward if not the same solutions then coordinated ones.” That means making good on promises to coordinate resources and aid, to jointly establish legal pathways, to humanely enforce migration rules in concert, and to set up an early warning system to alert each other to future movement.
Other nations and international organizations can help. The US and other governments can expand current programs that provide not just humanitarian relief but also those that fund shelters, schools, and social services; help farmers shift to more weather-resistant crops, and work with governments to develop legal frameworks and border management tools. Multilateral banks can finance affordable housing, worker training, and provide seed capital for migrant-led business ventures. And international companies can work with local businesses and governments to target, train, and employ migrants.
Poverty, violence, political instability and repression, and extreme weather and natural disasters will likely keep millions on the move in the Western Hemisphere, where migration currently outpaces most places in the world. The region’s local governments and policymakers must decide if and how to welcome these newcomers. But for those nations far-seeing enough to accept them, their integration will open a wider path to greater prosperity for all their citizens over decades to come.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.”
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