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Soldiers patrol as people walk near the international border port in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in January. (DANIEL BECERRIL/REUTERS)
Soldiers patrol as people walk near the international border port in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in January. (DANIEL BECERRIL/REUTERS)

Trump’s policies may reverse the flow of migrants in Latin America Add to ...

U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive orders on refugees and immigration in the United States have governments throughout the Americas preparing for a significant change in the flow of migrants – and may create new challenges for countries with limited experience in receiving foreigners seeking to stay.

The flow of migrants has historically run north: More than 135,000 people from Central America claimed asylum in Mexico and North America last year, fleeing violence at home, as hundreds of thousands before them have done since a series of U.S.-backed wars destabilized the region in the 1980s. Colombians fled north from civil war, and more recently, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have sought asylum in the United States as the economy of their country crumbles.

In addition, growing numbers of “extra-continentals” (refugees and migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa) have been using Latin America as a route north in the past few years, in response to tighter borders controls in Europe.

But the process of reaching and staying in the United States has grown steadily more difficult. First the Obama administration increased border enforcement and deported a record 2.5 million people. Now Mr. Trump’s ban on refugees, plans to build a wall along the U.S. border and pledge to heavily augment border patrols – and the confusion that surrounds all these initiatives – have combined to create a sense of much greater risk and uncertainty for those seeking to enter the United States.

And that means new attention on Mexico, which is already flooded with asylum applications from those who can’t get to the United States – and on the continent’s other attractive host countries, particularly Brazil and Chile.

“We’re worried,” said Candido Pontes, director of the Rio de Janeiro office of the Catholic charity Caritas, which provides the majority of support to refugees in Brazil. “We’re very aware that [a surge] in arrivals could occur.” He said Brazil has a strong track record of welcoming refugees – more than 40 per cent of asylum claims are granted – but has no program to offer them support with housing, language training, employment or basic income. When refugees do access those, it’s through charities, primarily Caritas.

The country currently feeling the largest direct impact of the Trump policy shift is Mexico, which up until now has detained and deported tens of thousands of Central Americans every year in what is effectively outsourced border control for the United States. It is not clear whether Mexico intends to enforce those deportations going forward. In addition, thousands of Cubans currently in Mexico who were bound for the United States were suddenly trapped when, in the last days of his term, former president Barack Obama ended a long-time policy of giving Cubans the right to remain if they entered the United States. And the International Organization for Migration estimates 40,000 Haitians, mostly economic migrants, are in Mexico as well.

“Mexico has changed dramatically in the last year and is making a much more robust commitment,” to the rights of asylum seekers, said Renata Dubini, Americas director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “They were taken a bit by surprise” by a surge in applications last year, she said. (The number of refugee claims recognized over 2015 increased by 229 per cent, for the highest total since the 1980s). But church and other civil society organizations have helped drive a more humanitarian response.

Mexico’s economy is already suffering considerable strain from the impact of Trump orders and threats, including a 20-per-cent border tax on exports, and a pledge to end the North American free-trade agreement. The peso has plunged since his election. Brazil, too, has a political and economic crisis, and unemployment at nearly 12 per cent. Neither country has widespread support for spending government resources on foreigners.

That could boost the profile of Chile, the most stable country in the region; its per capita income is 40-per-cent higher than that of Mexico. Chile also offers migrants the ability to convert a tourist visa easily into a one- or two-year work visa, a system that many Haitians are using. Asylum applications have been rising steadily, from 260 applications in 2010 to 2,299 last year; 80 per cent of the claimants last year were Colombians. Chile offers refugees housing and social support in integration, but Rodrigo Sandoval, who heads the Department of Immigration of the Ministry of Interior, questioned how many Central Americans or others may arrive if the Trump directives change migrant flows.

“There are factors such as the language and political, institutional and economic stability of Chile that could make it attractive as a migratory destination,” he said by e-mail. “However, it should not be forgotten that Chile is located at the end of the world, so it is not within the first options for nationals of those countries.”

In the Trump era, however, migration destinations may be evaluated on new terms. “Migration is extremely nimble, much broader than it used to be,” said Joel Millman, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration. The fact that Somalis, Iraqis and Nepalis were – at least until last week – travelling to the United States from Ecuador or Brazil “proves that poverty and distance aren’t a barrier any more – if your chances of getting asylum are high.”

The largest influx to Brazil at present is Venezuelans, followed by Cubans. Brazil accepted 1,555 refugees in 2016 – but not the Venezuelans and Colombians. Nearly half of those granted asylum were Syrians, followed by Angolans and claimants from Congo. Since the 2010 earthquake, more than 90,000 Haitians have sought a “humanitarian visa” in Brazil that allowed them to stay and work, although the inward flow reversed last year as the economy cratered.

The nascent Haitian community has had even greater visibility in Chile, traditionally a country with limited racial diversity. There were just a few hundred Haitians who sought work in Chile before the earthquake; 23,000 received permits last year.

“The arrival of Haitian migrants has been a challenge for the country, basically because of the language barrier,” Mr. Sandoval said. “Although Chile as a country is unaccustomed to ethnic diversity and tends to react with suspicion to anything that can be considered different, there is a large sector of society that values migration and appreciates the social, economic and cultural contributions that the different migrant groups bring.”

Gustavo Marrone, head of the national committee on refugees in Brazil’s Ministry of Justice, said many Brazilians lack a basic understanding of the refugee issue, and think of them as criminals or fugitives – but the high-profile participation of a first-ever team of refugees in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio helped to improve understanding of why people flee their countries and what their rights are under international law.

Mr. Marrone said his department has been studying the Canadian model of community sponsorship with the idea of trying to replicate it; Brazil has pledged to UNHCR to accept 1,500 Syrians this year and a further 1,500 next year.

“We cannot have a program with the breadth of Canada’s because we have serious economic and social limitations,” he said. “We need to ensure that these people are not marginalized and don’t become a social problem … At a time when we have unemployment, an economic crisis, a political crisis, [accepting them] could generate a bigger problem for them than a solution.”

 

Conflict, natural disasters, political instability and climate change are all spurring migration in the Americas. Who’s moving?

People from the Caribbean, predominantly Haitians and Cubans seeking economic opportunity. The Cubans used to head for the U.S., where they were guaranteed asylum, but that policy has ended; tens of thousands are now in Mexico and elsewhere, reconsidering their destination.

Venezuelans, fleeing the economic implosion of their country. Many were focused on asylum in the U.S. while others seek more temporary refuge south in Brazil.

Colombians, fleeing violence resulting from shifting power relationships after a peace deal between the government and the FARC.

Central Americans, citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, fleeing violence, who once headed to the U.S. but now are going south to stable Costa Rica and beyond.

Peruvians and Bolivians seeking economic opportunity primarily in Chile.

The “extra-continentals” – migrants and refugee claimants from the Middle East and Africa who fly to Brazil, Ecuador or other South American countries for which they can obtain a visa, and then journey north hoping to reach the U.S. Authorities expect some may now consider Chile or Brazil as destinations instead.

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