The refugee conundrum: lessons from South America and Europe


Picture of Luisa Feline Freier
Luisa Feline Freier

Professor of Political Science at Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru

As the crisis in Venezuela continues to make headlines, Europeans have been wondering if there is a role for the EU to play in its resolution. Given its recent bout with migration, the EU’s instinct might be to help by sharing best practices with South American countries hosting Venezuelan refugees. However, at least on first sight, this approach should be turned on its head: rather, Europe should ask what it could learn from South American policy reactions to Venezuelan forced displacement.

Although South American governments are not living up to their legal obligations to recognise Venezuelan citizens as refugees under the Cartagena definition of ‘refugee’, at least 4mn people have moved to neighbouring countries since 2015. In early 2019, more than 1.2mn Venezuelans were living in Colombia; 700,000 in Peru; 250,000 in Ecuador; 130,000 in Argentina; 266,000 in Chile and 100,000 in Brazil. Every day, 5,000 Venezuelans flee their country as the borders of South American countries remain largely open. This is far more than most European countries can claim to have done during the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

However, while the European and Venezuelan refugee crises are comparable in scale, there are three major disparities between the two situations.

Although [Syrian migrants and refugees] tend to be highly qualified … they suffer negative social stigma

First, unlike the European refugee crisis, the displacement of Venezuelans is intraregional. Countries in South America have striven towards regional integration for decades through organisations such as MERCOSUR, the Andean Community and UNASUR. Parallel to recognising Venezuelans as refugees, most countries in South America have the legal ability, and arguably the responsibility, to apply the MERCOSUR Residence Agreement to Venezuelans. This has only been done by Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

Second, in contrast to Europe’s refugee crisis, the cultural similarities between Venezuelans and their regional neighbours facilitate their integration. This does not preclude cultural shocks – say between the more Caribbean, more outgoing and lively culture of Venezuelans and the more conservative, inward-looking, and reserved Andean culture. However, language and, more importantly, religious barriers, are virtually non-existent, unlike those seen between Middle-Eastern and North African migrants and Europeans.

Third, the Venezuelan displacement differs from the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis regarding their insertion in the region’s socio-racial hierarchies. The profile of Venezuelan migrants is constantly changing. For instance, their average educational levels are declining. Over 40% of Venezuelans who arrived in Peru before September 2017 had completed university education, compared to just 12% in early 2019.

Nevertheless, Venezuelans fare well in the socio-racial hierarchies of their host countries, which are still reminiscent of colonial times. Since they are not indigenous, and many of them are considered to be ‘white’ – or close to white – at least originally they tended to be perceived positively and as potential contributors to needed economic development.

Conversely, Syrian migrants and refugees in Europe face quite the opposite reception. Although they tend to be highly qualified, with around 40% of them having university education, they suffer negative social stigma attached to their skin colour, religion and nationality.

In Europe, the majority – even of highly qualified refugees – are unemployed

Despite these qualitative differences in the contexts of reception, the two regions could learn from each other in a number of ways. Europe should learn from South America when it comes to granting migrants and asylum seekers theimmediate right to work. Across the region, the unquestioned consensus is that Venezuelans can and should work as soon as they arrive in host countries, regardless of their status as economic migrants, asylum seekers or refugees. Although slow, formal labour market integration programs are being developed.

In Europe, the majority – even of highly qualified refugees – are unemployed. Evidence suggests that facilitating their legal employment would ease the fiscal burden they present on European welfare states and improve their social integration without significantly affecting national job markets and wages.

South American states, on the other hand, should learn from the European experience in two closely related ways. The region should consider the aftermath of the European refugee crisis as a warning of how easily migration and refugee flows can benefit radical populists. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly lucrative for South American politicians to build election campaigns or policy proposals that play to rising xenophobia. Here, the role of the media should not be underestimated. Democratic governments across the region would do well to cooperate with civil society and media outlets to work on a balanced and reporting on Venezuelan displacement.

Second, South America should look to Europe and remember that immigration has a rather explosive power that can disrupt regional integration efforts, even those as sophisticated as the European Union. Uncoordinated piecemeal reactions to the Venezuelan displacement have undermined regional integration projects like MERCOSUR and the South American Conference on Migration (SACM). This issue is particularly important in the context of the implosion of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – only Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Guyana and Suriname remain members – and its substitution by the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America (PROSUR) which marks an ideological return to, or the resilience of, the Right in South American executive politics.

Migration and refugee movements will remain political and politicised topics in both regions for years to come. South America and Europe should learn from these analogous experiences for the sake of the future of regional integration and democracy.

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