Migration data in South America
In the history of the South American nations, three major migration patterns have defined migration in the region: the first pattern corresponds to immigration from overseas; the second pattern relates to intraregional migration; and the third pattern refers to the emigration of South Americans to developed countries.
In recent years, intraregional migration has become a choice for millions of South Americans. Several agreements adopted under the regional integration processes contributed to enhance intraregional migration and to bring migrants access to social rights.
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected migration and human mobility in the region as countries have restricted international, transborder and internal movements to minimize the spread and impact of the pandemic. In order to provide non-nationals with adequate protection during the crisis (and inherently, the population as a whole), some South American countries have made adjustments to administrative mechanisms to ensure non-nationals’ regular migratory status and access to social rights.
In terms of migration data, key national and regional data sources, such as countries’ respective National Statistical Offices (INEs in Spanish) and the Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI, as it's known in Spanish), collect data and analyze trends. Recently, most countries in the region have invested in the improvement of migration management, which has laid a foundation for achieving better migration data.
Over the last two decades, international migration in the region experienced a change in direction, intensity and composition of migratory flows; the role that some countries played within the international migratory system has also changed. In this context, international contemporary migration in South America has three defined patterns.
Disparities among economic and labour opportunities are the main factors that fostered migration within the region, with the exception of Colombian migrants moving to Ecuador and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (hereafter referred to as Venezuela) as a response to internal political conditions, and security issues related to drug trafficking during the second half of the twentieth century. In last few years, the negative economic situation, lack of access to basic social needs such as healthcare and food, lack of money in cash, and political polarization have been the main drivers of Venezuelan emigration.
Over the last years, intraregional mobility increased due to dissemination of communication means, lower transportation costs and, essentially, the political conditions in the region with the implementation of regional integration mechanisms that facilitated mobility. Moreover, traditional destination countries among South American migrants (outside of the region) have implemented more restrictive policies, which led to a decrease in their popularity as destination countries.
Intraregional migrants have had as their main destination the southern cone: Argentina, Chile and Brazil are the countries that attract the majority of migrants in the region, proceeding mainly from Andean countries and Paraguay. On the other hand, since Colombia began peace negotiations in 2016 and 2017 after five decades of conflict, and Venezuela’s social and economic outlook began worsening, many Colombians have returned to their country and a considerable number of Venezuelans (around 1.8 million) have migrated to Colombia according to Migración Colombia (December, 2019) as well as other South American countries (IOM, 2019).
Over the last years, the number of immigrants in the region proceeding from other regions has increased significantly, with nationals from certain countries in Africa, Asia, North America, Central America, the Caribbean and Europe.
While South-South migration is not a new phenomenon in the region, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, there was a significant increase in migration from Africa and Asia, as a cause of increasingly restrictive policies in Europe and North America, along with liberal stands on visa applications in some South American countries (IOM, 2017b). Extraregional immigrants tend to be more vulnerable compared to regional migrants, as they tend to face challenges related to accessing regular migration status (and subsequently protected work), as well as language and cultural barriers, among others (ibid). Extraregional migrant flows are composed mainly of refugees/asylum seekers, economic migrants and irregular migrants (ibid). South America has historically received immigrants from Asia, particularly from the People’s Republic of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Migration from the Republics of China and Korea continues to be dynamic and with varying degrees of growth in some countries as validated by the increased number of residence permits issued to nationals from these countries (IOM, 2017b). The largest Asian community in the region is from China (ibid). Recently, due to conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, the number of Syrians in the region has increased. In this context, some South American countries have granted humanitarian visas and have implemented resettlement programmes (IOM, 2017b).
Among immigrants from Africa, new nationalities have been noted: Ethiopian, Somali, Eritrean, Nigerian, Congolese, and Egyptian, among others (IOM, 2017b). The majority of asylum seekers in Brazil come from Africa, in particular from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (ibid). The largest African community in the region is from Angola (ibid). Regarding migration from the Caribbean, in recent years, there has been an increase in the presence of nationals from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba in the region, some of which are transiting through Colombia en route to the United States. Furthermore, there has been a notable increase in residence permits, humanitarian visas and special amnesties issued through regular channels; the majority of them in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay (IOM, 2017b).
Extraregional emigration: South Americans abroad
Emigration has a long history in South America and, over the last decades, it has increased because of social and economic deficiencies in countries within the region. After the financial crisis of 1999 in Ecuador, for instance, there was an important outflow of Ecuadorians to Spain according to data from the Spanish National Statistical Institute. Spain also receives a significant proportion of Venezuelan, Peruvian and Colombian migrants. Another traditional migratory pattern is the emigration of nationals from the region to North America (mainly including Brazilians, Venezuelans and Colombians to the United States).
With regard to North America, data collected show that the United States is the most common intended country of destination in that region, chosen by 68 per cent of the migrants from South America. Mexico ranks second, being the intended destination for 14 per cent of migrants, whilst Canada is the third most preferred, being chosen by 7 per cent of migrants, according to a recent report (IOM, 2020).
Past and present trends
Along the history of the South American nations, from their constitution as republics in the early nineteenth century to the present, four major migration patterns stand out:
Immigration during the colonial period
Transoceanic immigration originated in the sixteenth century by mercantile and strategic factors, leaving its mark in South American. The European powers, mainly Spain and Portugal, competed for access to sources of supply and materials and for the control of strategic locations. The shortage of labour was met through the slave trade or forced migration and millions of slaves from Africa came by boats to the northern territories of this region (mainly in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela). After the abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, contractual work emerged, almost forced, which came mainly from India and the Republic of China, and whose greatest significance was felt in countries with coast on the North Pacific. The consequences of these population movements in the colonial period are manifested in the existence of significant communities, such as the Afro-descendants.
Overseas immigration between 1850 and 1950
The Industrial Revolution and the emergence of new industrial technologies contributed to the movement of a large number of people from Europe to South America. Nearly 9 million people arrived in the region (38% were Italian, 28% Spanish and 11% Portuguese); half settled in Argentina, more than a third in Brazil and part in Uruguay, having a greater impact in the cities (Pardo, 2018). The World Crisis of 1930 and the beginning of the Second World War interrupted migration, but it restarted in 1945 with the emigration of Spaniards and Italians migrants who were displaced by the war and by the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (ibid.)
Migration in the second half of the 20th century
Migration from the 1950s to the beginning of the twenty-first century was marked by the coexistence of intraregional and extraregional migration. Intraregional migration resulted from the exchange of populations between the countries of the region, facilitated by geographical proximity and cultural proximity, and driven by structural factors like inequalities of economic and socio-political development. Destination countries, mainly Argentina and Venezuela, could generate jobs and had greater degrees of social equity. Intraregional migration to Argentina increased considerably in the 1960s, with immigrants mainly working in construction, commerce, the textile industry and agriculture; female labour migrants were mostly employed in domestic service. In the case of Venezuela, an oil bonanza in the 1970s generated rapid economic growth and a demand for workers, attracting firstly Colombian migrants, and to a lesser extent, migrants from Andean countries (Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru) and from Chile. The migrants worked in commercial activities, restaurants and hotels, social and personal services, the manufacturing industry, agriculture and construction. In the 1990s, other countries such as Brazil and Chile also became destinations countries for intraregional migrant because of economic growth.1
Extraregional migration to developed countries
In recent decades, while immigration from overseas declined and the intraregional pattern stabilized, outward migration from South America grew. Extraregional migration was driven by social, economic and political causes such as ruptures and the reestablishment of democratic forms of government, which generated forced migration movements between the 1960s and 1980s. Lack of work, low salaries, poor prospects for individual and collective growth, poor quality of social goods and services, among other things, stimulated the permanent exit of populations to mainly the United States and Europe, both of highly qualified migrants as well as manual workers in less specialized sectors. In the south of the continent, the displacement of political exiles, both in Europe and in North America, was a dominant feature in these years. From the beginning of the 1990s, most of the countries in the region experienced accelerated extraregional migration fueled by economic and social crises (and in the case of Colombia, intensified armed conflict). In the last decades, extraregional destinations of South American migration have expanded, mainly to Europe, where Spain is the main destination, following Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, France and the United Kingdom, reaching a volume of 4.1 million South Americans around 2020 (UNDESA, 2020).
The National Statistical Offices (INEs in Spanish), which generally depend on the respective Ministries of Economy, are responsible for the design and implementation of censuses and household surveys in all South American countries. The INEs produce data on migrant stocks exclusively from censuses and household surveys, and in very few cases, produce data on migrant flows from administrative records.
In the region, all countries have carried out two or more censuses from 1980 to 2018, and some countries have carried out all census rounds in the last four decades (Argentina, the Plurinational State of Bolivia [hereafter referred to as Bolivia], Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Venezuela). All South American countries conduct household surveys, some of which inquire about topics such as immigration, emigration, temporary mobility and remittances.
Among the agencies responsible for surveying and disseminating information from administrative records, the General/National Directorates of Migration (DGM), generally under the Ministries of Interior, are responsible for recording inflows and outflows, as well as residence records. Records of asylum seekers are also relevant administrative records, and are usually managed through a National Refugee Commission, in cooperation with United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR).
Other agencies working with administrative records include the Ministry of Labour and Employment, which is usually responsible for collecting data on employment permits of migrants in the country, and the Directorate General of Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for the protection and assistance of nationals abroad and keeping a consular registry of registered nationals.
At the regional level, there are two important initiatives to produce knowledge in migration area. One is the Research on International Migration in Latin America and the Caribbean (IMILA, for its acronym in Spanish). The other one is the Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI, for its acronym in Spanish), which produces biannual reports.
Recently, the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) has been deployed in order to capture information about Venezuelan population mobility across Latin American and the Caribbean. Particularly, Flow Monitoring Surveys have been implemented since 2016, starting in Colombia. DTM was implemented in transit and settlement locations in South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay.
Data strengths and limitations
- All countries in the South American region apply international methodologies to evaluate the coverage and quality of the information disclosed and disseminate in their data.
- Most countries in the region have recently invested in the improvement of migration management, through the inclusion of advanced computer recognition systems, equipment, infrastructure and training of migration agents. These advances have still not shown significant improvements in the quality of data collected. However, they have generated the conditions for potentially having a better migration data.
- Administrative records: The creation of the Andean Migration Card, operating between Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, has assisted in recording inflows and outflows among these countries. Records of entries and exits through immigration control points are processed and made known on a regular basis. Based on the common registration instrument, comparability of data has been achieved.
It is worth highlighting that in recent years, residence registries have become a reliable source of data for studying intraregional migration as a consequence of the Mercosur Residency Agreement (IOM, 2018a). Prominent examples include Argentina and Chile, which have complete structures for processing statistics on the residencies granted.
- Household surveys: The purpose of household surveys is to study the living conditions of the general population. In most countries of the region, household surveys generate relevant information on migration based on the inclusion of specific questions. Specific questions on emigration are included, for example, in the Survey of Living Conditions (Ecuador). They inquire about emigrants that have migrated because of employment. Moreover, in Peru, the National Institute for Statistics and Information (INEI) includes migration related questions in various non-periodic household surveys and in other types of surveys.
- While the data sources above provide government agencies with useful information on international migration that can be compared with other countries in the region, data sources are still widely dispersed across agencies, not consolidated and lack coordination.
- There is lack of communication among the holders of official information on migration. In this context, the case of the Andean countries should be recognized. At the request of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), a methodological dialogue was generated among participating parties in the collection of data (that is the National Statistical Institutes, the authorities of migratory organizations, and the Central Banks). As a result, data among the four countries are comparable. Furthermore, the reports on remittances published by the four participating Central Banks have been homogenized to the point of becoming the object of quarterly community reports.
- Administrative records: Statistical information from administrative records of international arrivals and departures in the region presents deficiencies in terms of coverage and quality. First, a large number of movements are not recorded, as many migrants avoid passing through customs and/or border posts, especially fluvial and terrestrial. Moreover, the records also count movements that cannot be included under the statistical concept of migration, such as tourist arrivals and border transits; this makes it difficult to distinguish migratory movements in and out of the region. Since it is impossible to identify the different types of flows, it is also difficult to know precisely the volume of migratory movements.
Although consular records are a useful data source on nationals abroad and diaspora, the consulates only reach a small percentage of the population abroad. Given the increase in volume of nationals abroad in recent years, and the shift towards a rapprochement policy, consular registers have been expanded and improved.
Regional stakeholders and processes
Several regional integration mechanisms, such as the Community of Latin American and the Caribbean States (CELAC), the South American Nations Union (UNASUR), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) have facilitated intra-regional mobility. Over the last decades, CAN and MERCOSUR particularly encouraged intraregional migration by advancing the promotion of free transit and permanent residency of the citizens in the region through the facilitation of entry, migratory procedures, and access to documentation and social rights for migrants.
1. The Andean Community of Nations (CAN) was created in 1969 through the Cartagena Agreements and involves 4 countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Its main objective is to achieve an integral development, equal and autonomous, through the Andean, South American and Latin American integration. To achieve this objective, Member States agree on policies and joint projects in political, social, cultural, environmental, and commercial areas, among others.
The CAN’s achievements include: the “Andean citizenship”, which recognizes the rights of approximately 100 million people; the creation of a free-trade zone that already surpasses USD 10,000 million annually; and advances in the definition of an Andean Plan of Human Development and Migration. CAN has also created:
- • Migratory Andean Card (TAM): An obligatory document for migratory and statistical control for entry and exit from Member States’ territories. It facilitates and simplifies the control of movement of people that enter and exit the Member States, favouring Andean integration and fostering tourism.
- • Border Integration Zones (ZIF): Territorial border spaces of the Member States created to foster border integration in a jointly, shared, coordinated and oriented way to obtain mutual benefits.
- • Bi-national centres of border assistance (CEBAF): Includes routes of access, compounds, equipment and furnishing needed to provide an integrated customs and immigration control point.
2. The Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR)
MERCOSUR was created by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay in 1991 to achieve a common market. Over the years, it has expanded to establish free-trade agreements with Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Since its beginnings, labour migration was included as an important topic in the agreement. Moreover, the Asunción Treaty (1991) specified that the main objective of MERCOSUR is to establish the free circulation of goods, services and products among countries. The Member States agreed to establish an external common fee, adopt a common commercial policy with other countries, coordinate macro-economic and sectorial policies and commit to harmonize legislation in pertinent areas.
In 2002, the region took a fundamental step towards achieving the free movement of people and advancing the rights of migrants through the Agreement on Residence for Nationals of the States Parties of MERCOSUR, Bolivia and Chile (then extended to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru). The Agreement established common rules for citizens from signatory countries soliciting residency in signatory countries other than their country of origin. The rules include “MERCOSUR nationality” criteria that, jointly with the lack of criminal records and the presentation of certain personal papers, constitute the basic requisites for obtaining residency.
The Agreement also promotes equal rights between migrants and natives. It extends a series of rights, such as the right to entry, exit, health, education, family reunification, work, and free transfer of remittances, among other rights. The Agreement also exempts irregular migrants who meet the criteria and obtain residency from paying penalties or monetary sanctions for their irregularity.
Since the validation of the Agreement in 2009, countries have used the Agreement to manage residencies or visas, easing the procedures and reducing application-processing times. As a result, the number of residencies granted has notably increased. More than 2 million residencies were granted, with Argentina issuing the most, followed by Chile and Brazil.
Total residencies (temporary and permanent) issued under the Agreement on for Nationals of the States Parties of MERCOSUR, 2009-2018
Source: Prepared by IOM based on data provided by governments.
International Organization for Migration
2020 Extraregional Migration in the Americas: Profiles, Experiences and Needs. Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean San José, Costa Rica.
2018a Evaluation of the MERCOSUR Residence Agreement and its impact on access to migrants' rights. Migration papers No. 9. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2018b Migration trends in the Americas-Venezuela. July. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2017a Migration trends in South America. South American migration report No. 1. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2017b Recent extra-regional, intra-regional an extra-continental migration trends in South America. Migration trends in South America. South American migration report No. 2. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2015 Migration Dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean (ALC), and the ALC and the European Union. Regional Office for the European Economic Area, the European Union and NATO, Brussels.
2014 Haitian migration to Brazil: Characteristics, opportunities and challenges. Migration papers No. 6. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2013a Information systems on international migration in South American countries. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
2013b The experience of South American countries on migration regularization. IOM Regional Office in South America, Buenos Aires.
International Organization for Migration and the Public Policy Institute on Human Rights of MERCOSUR
2017 Regional diagnostic on Haitian migration. Buenos Aires.
Ascencio, F.L. and J.M. Pizarro (eds.)
2015 Return on migration processes in Latin America. Concepts, debates and evidence. Investigation series No. 16. The Latin American Population Association (ALAP), Río de Janeiro.
Migration Policy Institute
2020 Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Regional Profile. Fact Sheets, August. Migration Policy Institute and the International Organization for Migration. Washington, DC and Panama City.
1 Intraregional migrants have entered almost entirely irregularly (although not clandestinely). Countries in the region have taken extraordinary measures to “regularize” migrants with irregular status though they did not establish a permanent mechanism to do so.Back to top
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