Migration is Going to Happen
by Diego Acosta
August 2, 2021
This interview with Diego Acosta, a Professor of European migration law at the University of Bristol, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Diego | My area of expertise is immigration law in Europe and in South America. However, now I'm working more and more on other regions of the world, and I am interested mainly on regional free movement of people.
I am interested in the policy angle. I try to give, whenever it’s requested, my advice to governments or international organizations in Europe, in the U.S., in South America, the Caribbean, and in Africa. That's a little bit of what I do.
I want to talk to you about South America for a minute. I think, in many parts of the U.S., there’s an assumption that people leaving Venezuela are headed exclusively to the U.S. border. But actually, most migration is taking place within South America.
Venezuela is a very interesting case because Venezuela has always been a country of immigration. Venezuela was never, throughout its 200 years of existence, a country of emigration. There were very few Venezuelans abroad. That changed from 2015 onwards. Around 2015, there were an estimated 600,000 Venezuelans abroad. Today, the estimates are more or less 5.6 million Venezuelans abroad. In a period of six years, 5 million people have left Venezuela.
That is the largest displacement of people in the world right now, together with Syrians.
Eighty percent of the Venezuelans have been going to other countries in Latin America, mostly to Colombia, where there are 1.7 million. Peru has more than one million Venezuelans. Chile and Ecuador have more than 400,000 Venezuelas in their countries. Brazil has around 260,000 Venezuelans. They are also going to Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. The only two countries outside Latin America that have received a number of Venezuelans are the U.S. and Spain.
Parlee, Lorena M. [Busy street in Caracas, Venezuela], photograph, [1969..]; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1633561/m1/1/?q=venezuela: accessed July 29, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.
[Mountains in Venezuela], photograph, [1969..]; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1633666/m1/1/?q=venezuela: accessed July 29, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.
Why the sudden immigration from Venezuela? How are those leaving being categorized within a legal framework – what ‘type’ of migration is happening?
So those are two very important questions.
First, why are they migrating? A combination of social, political, economic, and security reasons. The deterioration of the situation in Venezuela on different levels.
Second, legally speaking, Venezuelans have been categorized in many different ways. Some Venezuelans have been recognized as refugees. Brazil has granted around 50,000 Venezuelans refugee status. In theory, all Venezuelans could be recognized as refugees because Latin America has the Cartagena Declaration, which has been enshrined in the domestic asylum laws of 15 countries in the region.
It says that if you are living in a country where there is a situation of general violation of human rights, by definition, you could be considered a refugee.
A normal refugee is someone who leaves their country and is individually persecuted because of one of the five grounds laid out in the Geneva Convention on Refugees: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The Cartagena Declaration widens the definition of a refugee. Any Venezuelan in one of the countries adopting the Cartagena Declaration can be recognized as a refugee.
Then, you have countries like Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, which have created special permits for Venezuelans. The problem with these permits is that they have been granted only for a limited period of time and there were always deadlines to apply for them. That means that pretty much half of the Venezuelans who are abroad in Latin America, are undocumented. The country where the most Venezuelans arrive, which is Colombia with 1.7 million, has that problem. They have adopted a temporary status based on humanitarian concerns for Venezuelans, but, nonetheless, 55% of the Venezuelans that are living in Colombia are undocumented. The Colombian government took quite a bold step this year. They said, "We're going to regularize everyone. We're going to give everyone what they call a temporary status, but it is valid for 10 years. And that permit will also be accessible to Venezuelans who enter into Colombia in the coming two years." Spain is also doing that. In Spain, Venezuelans are not recognized as refugees, but they are granted humanitarian protection.
The third category, which Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay fall under, is residence permits under the regional framework on mobility, the Mercosur Residence Agreement. That is an agreement that allows people to move freely within the region and is quite similar to what we have in the EU. It allows you to get the residence permit and gives you the right to work, the right to healthcare, and the right to family reunion within the countries that have ratified that agreement. Nine countries out of twelve in South America have ratified that agreement. Venezuela has not ratified that agreement, so in theory, Venezuelans are not entitled to more generous treatment. Nonetheless, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have decided to offer them these permits.
The fourth category is the Venezuelans who are, unfortunately, undocumented. And in that regard, some countries have launched regularization procedures to, as you say in the U.S., legalize, or as we say internationally, regularize, these individuals.
Why in the last five or six years has immigration within South America become more popular? Is it just because Venezuela has reached a crisis point that requires movement, or are there other encouraging elements?
There has always been immigration within South America, of South Americans going to other South American countries. There was always movement within the region. In the last few years, some countries have received an important number of migrants because their economies have been improving.
Chile has become an important immigration destination. Chile in the 1980s had 0.2% of its population foreign-born during the dictatorship. Now, roughly 8% of this population is foreign-born. The Mercosur Residence Agreement has been an important part of this since 2009. If you are Brazilian, for example, you have the right to reside in eight other countries in South America.
Can you define regional free mobility? What that means in South and Latin America, but also more broadly.
We could define regional free movement as laws that allow migrants coming from a particular group of countries in the region to obtain residence and equal treatment with nationals.
There are many, many examples of that. People usually think about the European Union because we have 27 member states. But that trend is happening all around the world. You have that in South America, you have that in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, there are two regional organizations that allow for free movement. You have that in many sub-regions in Africa. You have that in the Gulf Countries – they have the Gulf Cooperation Council which allows the nationals of those six countries mobility. You have that in the post-Soviet states. This is a very normal trend and it is very important because it shows you how in order to manage migration, countries do not only erect borders, sometimes they simply get rid of borders or ease borders in order to manage that migration.
It is an acknowledgment that migration is going to happen and it's simply a way to facilitate it.
This pretty much only happening at a regional level, there are no examples of this happening between regions. This has also never happened in North America. There were some ideas of it at the beginning of NAFTA, but it never came to fruition. Asia is also a little bit behind on this trend.
Jimmy Carter - Caracas, Venezuela. Jimmy Carter's Presidential Photographs; White House Staff Photographers Collection. US NATIONAL ARCHIVES.
Do you think the trend is becoming accepted as what works in terms of managing migration? Or do you think it might be moving away from that? Brexit is the most obvious example.
I think both things are happening at the same time, and that's what happens with migration law. In any given year, in any given decade, you have both restrictive and nonrestrictive developments.
Every single year, within the last 20 years, we have seen either the adoption or the development of regional free movement rules in at least one region of the world.
Just a few weeks ago Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, after eight years of negotiation, adopted what they call the Andean Immigration Statute, which is another legal instrument giving free movement, interestingly enough, not only to nationals of these four countries but also to any permanent resident of any of these four countries. If you are a U.S. national and you have permanent residency in Ecuador, this instrument allows you to then also get residency in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, for example. And that is quite a bold step that has never happened before. Every year there are developments. I would say it is becoming kind of normal for countries to be involved in at least one bilateral or multilateral agreement, facilitating mobility.
That doesn't mean that the opposite isn't also true. There are trends of restriction that are happening at the same time. We'll see, obviously, what happens now in the aftermath of COVID. But so far, COVID has not stopped the trend.
Do you feel like these multilateral agreements are the right way to think about mobility? With an acknowledgment that people have always moved and will continue to move. Does migration work better this way for countries and for people?
Yeah. I would say two things.
First of all, when you give people the right to move, it doesn't mean that more people will move.
That's a very important thing. And the statistics do not lie there. Around 3.3% of people in the world are migrants — that is not much. That means that almost 97% of the world doesn't move, they live in the country where they were born and they stay there. When you open borders, what happens? One might think that when you ease mobility through the borders, many more people move. That is not the case. Take the European Union as an example. 3.3% of EU citizens reside in different member states of the European Union, despite the fact that we all have that right to do so.
You might think it's because these are rich countries. Well, that is not the case. The minimum salary in Romania is completely different from the minimum salary in Denmark. So why aren't there more Romanians in Denmark? The answer to that is because the decision to migrate is the result of many different variables that play a role. It is not just related to economics or to salary.
Regional free movement agreements can also help a lot when it comes to climate change concerns. In 2017, there was Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean. That hurricane basically destroyed the island state of Dominica.
What Dominicans did was to move to Antigua, but they didn't move as environmental migrants or environmental refugees. They moved as regional citizens because they had the right to enter. That made mobility much easier, and funnily enough, that means that the moment the situation in Dominica improves, you are much more willing to go back because you know that if it goes wrong again, you can move back to Antigua.
And this is something that has happened in the U.S. Many sociologists in the U.S. tell us that the moment you militarize the border, it becomes harder to cross the border. Nonetheless, people continue crossing the border. However, now, once they cross the border, they don't want to engage in back and forth as they did before. It is much more expensive and more dangerous to cross the border. And therefore, what you do is you remain put.
Funnily enough, the more rights you have in a country, the higher the possibility that you might leave at some point.
It’s so narcissistic to assume everybody's trying to move here. People like where they're from and want to live where their families are.
When you go to border areas anywhere in the world, the border is the result of, many times, serendipity or certain historical circumstances that put the border in one particular place. In the case of Africa where borders were delineated, even more randomly than in other places, that's certainly the case. I think regional free movement agreements are a good solution to many of these challenges.
In the journal I originally read your work in, the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, I found the language interesting. The attempt to bridge the gap between ideal scenarios and the reality of the world we live in. I find here, immigration conversions are hyper simplistic. Do you find language can help, in a real way?
Absolutely. I think media plays a role there.
Sometimes we forget basic things. The U.S., for example, has millions of U.S. nationals abroad who are migrants themselves.
The UK has 5 million British nationals abroad who are migrants themselves. Many times when we think of migration, we think only about one category of people. We think about Latin American or Asian or African people as migrants. We always think about people who are poor and desperately moving. That does not help to have an informed debate on a complex issue.
I think personal stories can help. Many migrants simply move because they fall in love or because they find a job or because they go to study or because they want to experience something different. But obviously, in the political discourse, we focus on the examples that are more extreme and that makes it difficult.
I don’t want to downplay the complexity of movement and international cooperation. Of course, there are difficult issues. But there are moments where I feel like, what, the United States can’t absorb 100,000 people? A football stadium full of people? That’s absurd.
I mean you go to a place like Silicon Valley and 50% of the people working there and creating the wealth of the region are foreigners. That is why that place is what it is – because you have people willing to go to that place and, at the end of the day, create wealth for a different country from the one they were born in.