Covid-19 turning back the flow of migration in Latin America

. Apr 16, 2020
Covid-19 turning back the flow of migration in Latin America Refugee camp in Northern Brazil. Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit countries around the world, many nations adopted isolation measures that involved sending tourists back home. Equally, governments and embassies from all continents issued pleas for their own citizens — in foreign countries for work, study, or leisure — to return home as the outbreak intensified. In Brazil, the Foreign Ministry sent planes to bring back hundreds of tourists on holiday, including one group of 410 Brazilians in Peru. For them, the process was painless, they may have had their holiday cut short, but they were soon back at home with their families.

But what happens when returning to your home country is the last thing you want to do? And what if you are faced with closed borders?

According to the

International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 514 people died in 2019 while trying to migrate to different countries. Of these, a minimum of 247 were Central Americans seeking out a new life in the U.S. In these so-called &#8220;migrant caravans,&#8221; there are often entire families and children traveling alone.</p> <p>The Covid-19 pandemic is also a big threat to Venezuela, which is in the throes of one of Latin America&#8217;s worst humanitarian crises. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (<a href="">UNHCR</a>) alerts that at least 4 million people have fled the South American nation since 2015, when <a href="">social and political chaos was already brewing</a>. The UN has warned that the world cannot lose sight of the needs of &#8220;millions of Venezuelan refugees and migrants&#8221; while global attention is focused on Covid-19.</p> <h2>Re-migration</h2> <p>Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a new phenomenon: of Venezuelans trying to return home from Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, as their poor working conditions don&#8217;t allow them to adequately practice social isolation.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Venezuelan government estimates that almost 15,000 citizens want to return, with around 3,000 managing to do so since April 6, when a curfew was announced in the cities of San Antonio de Táchira and Ureña, located on the Colombia-Venezuela border.&nbsp;</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="How strict has Latin America been with restrictive measures_" class="wp-image-36174" srcset=" 636w, 186w, 610w, 210w, 764w" sizes="(max-width: 636px) 100vw, 636px" /></figure></div> <p>Colombia has been the leading destination for Venezuelan migrants, with over 1.6 million people hopping over the Táchira River, according to UNHCR numbers.</p> <p>Now, people are seeking to return to Venezuela, even though there are less than 100 intensive care beds currently available in the country, per official data from the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV). In some cases, immigrants admit that if they are going to die, it would be better to do it at home.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Continuous migration flow</h2> <p>According to Fernando Fornaris, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the city of Boa Vista — the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela — global restrictions due to the pandemic have not stopped migrants from circulating and attempting to cross borders.&nbsp;</p> <p>“In some parts of the world, migrants are fleeing armed conflict, which has not stopped because of the pandemic. In others, they are seeking improved living conditions, intensified as a result of Covid-19. When you consider that they were already vulnerable before, and now they are facing a new risk,” Mr. Fornaris told <strong>The Brazilian Report.</strong></p> <p>The pandemic puts migrants at a crossroads: either they choose to disrespect social isolation as a result of their often cramped living arrangements in foreign countries, or they are forced to keep moving and be exposed to larger crowds.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="enezuelan travelers and immigrants wait their turn to be processed by the immigration service" class="wp-image-36171" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1620w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Venezuelan immigrants wait their turn to be processed at the Ecuadorian border. Photo: Voz de América/Commons</figcaption></figure> <h2>Venezuelans in Brazil</h2> <p>The Brazilian government reports that more than 264,000 Venezuelans have <a href="">entered the country since 2015</a>. Now, though the border between the two countries is closed, people continue to cross.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the state of Roraima, the first port of call for Venezuelans entering Brazil, there are <a href="">at least 6,000 immigrants living in community shelters</a>, but also more than 3,000 are on the streets or living in informal settlements.&nbsp;</p> <p>Beyond the new crisis, the Red Cross told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that 13 plumbing installations — including wells, bathrooms, and showers — were built in community spaces that benefit more than 8,000 people every day, giving them access to clean water and hygiene.&nbsp;</p> <p>“A constant need for migrants and one which we continue to fulfill is to keep in touch with their families. In Roraima alone, we have offered more than 470,000 phonecalls since 2018. With the pandemic, we adapted our work to prevent contagion from the virus, but the service goes on,” Mr. Fornaris said.&nbsp;</p> <p>With the migration influx in recent years, the Brazilian government responded to the issue by deploying 600 members of the Armed Forces to help in border towns. On Tuesday, the operation&#8217;s press office reported that 39 members of the border force have tested positive for Covid-19. In Roraima, 113 people are infected and three have died, and it is suspected that many cases go under-reported.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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