Environmental Migrants and Climate Change in South America

By Vanina Modolo


Environmental migration has received increased attention from policymakers and other stakeholders, academics, not to mention the public in general, due to irrefutable evidence surrounding climate change and its impact on human mobility. South America is considered one of the regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is the result of its biodiversity, rapid urban development, inequality in income distribution and the stark division between rural and urban centers. Indeed, the IOM launched a study in November that explores the link between migration, environment and climate change in five South American countries. This study concluded that in targeted communities, there are permanent and/or transitory migratory movements due to the intensification of extreme events caused by climate change.

The research was carried out in five selected communities of South America. Lujan, a city in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is highly vulnerable to floods. In spite of this, permanent mobility is minimal and it mainly affects those with limited resources. Most people living in the town temporarily move to stay with friends or relatives during floods. In Brazil, an alternation of droughts and floods has led to significant migration. As a consequence of the loss of harvests and houses, the closure of shops and the lack of contingency policies, people in Rumo Certo, a community in the State of Amazonas, had to leave to nearby communities. Over 1,000 families have moved  to different places within the State in the last ten years. In Monte Patria (Chile), frequent droughts, combined with significant flaws in water provision, help push people to migrate to other parts of Chile. Around 15 per cent of the population of Monte Patria has migrated to mining areas in Northern Chile. In Tacamocho (Colombia), recurrent floods and erosion (worsened by climate change) have led to the significant emigration of particularly the young, and of families living near the Magdalena River. Some families have moved to safer areas within the same community, others have moved to neighbouring communities such as Córdoba, the main city in that municipality, or to other cities such as Barranquilla or Cartagena. In Santa Lucía de Chuquipogyo (Ecuador), damage is caused by lahares (a mixture of mud and melted snow), which represent a significant danger to human lives, assets, infrastructure and productive lands. Nearly 10 per cent of the population, who tend to make their livelihood through agriculture and cattle breeding, have had to move permanently to urban centres. Other dwellers prefer to temporarily move to Guano, the main city in that municipality, or to Riobamba.

Fieldwork in these communities allowed us to confirm that most dwellers directly affected by extreme climate and environmental changes are willing to move, on a permanent basis and in the framework of a relocation plan: they go to safer areas in their own state, province or region. In some cases, migration can act as an adaptation strategy to climate change. Another fundamental aspect observed during fieldwork was the active participation of women, at the same level as men. They took part in the identification of needs, and in the search for collective solutions to problems linked to extreme climate events, as well as to potential displacements arising from these situations.

The study also confirmed an important deficit in available information about the causes and the magnitude of population movements caused by extreme climate changes in South America. According to the study, there is only very limited coordination between the research generated by academics, and the decisions made by public institutions while managing migration and environmental topics. Another important conclusion is the absence of entities or organizations in the five countries involved, engaged in the formulation and implementation of comprehensive public policies for population, migration and climate change.

The authors of the study also made several recommendations, including the creation of a Regional Committee on Migration and Climate Change to develop policies on risk management, adaptation and mitigation measures from a gendered perspective in South America. This Committee would be designed to implement early warning programs and to assist displaced population groups in extreme climatic events. The study also recommends the generation and consolidation of multilateral and/or bilateral legislation and agreements. These would safeguard the rights of environmental migrants, as well as supporting research that continues to provide evidence on the effects of migration, environment and climate change factors in the region.

In order to cope with increasing human mobility from environmental drivers, it is essential that there be more research to better understand the linkages between climate change and migration. Efforts should be made to mitigate pressures to migrate, to reduce disaster risks and/or planned relocation as an adaptation strategy. Many people affected by climate change are forced or decide to migrate within or across international borders. In this case, the IOM would identify the key task to be facilitating safe, orderly and regular migration.


The views expressed in this article belong to the blog’s author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy or the research done by the MIGPROSP team.


About the author

Vanina Modolo holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the National University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina, and a Masters in Development and International Aid from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. She has extensive experience doing research, having been a fellow for several years of the Argentinian National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, based at the Gino Germani Research Institute of the UBA. Currently, she is a Researcher and Migration Analyst at the Regional Office of IOM in South America.


Migration Governance in Uruguay: An “Adaptive” Approach or Something More?

By Simca Simpson Lapp


At the beginning of November, Uruguay hosted the South American Conference on Migration (SACM). The Conference is the principal forum for consultation and non-binding governmental dialogue on migration in the region. Uruguay’s pro tempore presidency provides an apt context for reflection on the development of its own policy framework for immigrant inclusion and integration in recent years. IOM Deputy Director Laura Thompson recently described this policy trajectory as one “that has adapted” to changing migration flows. But, more specifically, Uruguay’s process of policy adaptation has involved both the development of a comprehensive rights-based legal framework, and a somewhat piecemeal approach to its implementation.

Uruguay has a reputation for progressive politics in a number of areas, from its internationally-lauded law guaranteeing labour rights for domestic workers (2006) to the legalization of cannabis (2013). However, its migrant rights legislation has until now garnered little attention on the international stage. The country received significant flows of European migrants in the first half of the 1900s, but maintained a negative net migration rate during much of the second half of the century. In the past decade, its migratory context has nevertheless undergone a series of normative and substantive transformations. The current framework governing migrant rights in the country is compromised mainly of the 2008 Migration Law (18.250) and the 2014 Permanent Resident Law (19.254), which brought Uruguayan law into accord with a number of international treaties and regional policy aims.

This framework was constructed in reaction to several significant trends, including: a) a regional paradigm change in migration governance that led many states to overhaul restrictive migration decrees in favour of rights-based migration laws; b) the advancement of a MERCOSUR free-movement agenda; and c) a partial reversal of decades-long emigration flows coupled with substantial increases in immigration in recent years. Changes in Uruguay’s net migration balance are considered to have principally been a result of the economic recovery following the country’s 2002 banking crisis. However, an international reputation for “vanguard” policies may have played a role in making the country of under 3.5 million a desirable destination for intra-regional migrants. These policies reflect the consolidation of social and economic rights under the successive Frente Amplio (FA) presidencies of Tabaré Vázquez and José “Pepe” Mujica since 2005.

Recent migration trends have included both more historically-salient flows from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, as well as newer flows from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Citizens of all except the last three states have rights to permanent residence in Uruguay, given their membership or associated state status in Mercosur. Furthermore, although Venezuela was suspended indefinitely from the sub-regional trade bloc in August 2017, a visa requirement has not been imposed on Venezuelan nationals and applications for permanent residency continue to be processed.

On the whole, the Uruguayan state’s response to these broad transformations has been rights-based rhetoric and legal guarantees based on such principles as equality and non-discrimination, with a piecemeal approach to rights implementation. The granting of permanent rather than temporary residency to MERCOSUR migrants upon arrival in Uruguay is one legal guarantee that exemplifies this dynamic. At SACM 2017, the approach was recognized as “exemplary”. However, there have been gaps between the “rapid” processes once advertised on government websites and delays of up to a year in securing appointments to ultimately process permanent residency applications. Although there is some evidence that these outcomes are improving, they are broadly indicative of implementation gaps in the overall process of providing substantive rights guarantees.

The case of non-Mercosur Dominican migrants also demonstrates the adaptability of immigration policies but also gaps in the fulfillment of migrants’ broader social rights. Uruguay imposed visa requirement for citizens of the Dominican Republic in 2014 following the arrival of up to a few thousand migrants, some of whom were victims of human trafficking. At the municipal level in Montevideo, access to decent housing for these and other recent migrants has been a significant concern. Many begin their stay in unregulated pensiones (hostels) near the city centre in very precarious conditions. Others were left awaiting assistance from the Ministry of Housing after their informal settlement on the outskirts of the Capital was uprooted by the Intendencia (City Government).

Another example of ad hoc migration governance was Mujica’s humanitarian bid to receive a number of former detainees upon their release from Guantanamo Bay in 2014. Despite the hopes of assisting and promoting the integration of this group of migrants, the lack of a substantive infrastructure for migrant services and integration and the purported denial of family reunification requests helped frustrate an already complex initiative.

As these cases demonstrate, some recent migrants who have come in pursuit of the “Uruguayan dream” have found an infrastructure of inclusion that is still very much “under construction”. Migration governance in Uruguay is both an example of the capacity of the state to adapt to changing dynamics, and indicative of the extent of the capacity building required to implement a comprehensive migrant rights framework.

These national developments play out in a regional context in which migration governance has been described as being “in transition” and national conditions may trump other factors in determining policy implementation. Nonetheless, the SACM documents continue to employ rights-based language in addition to emphasizing the provision of “regular” migration channels. Thus, whether or not immigration flows to Uruguay continue at the same rate in the coming years, the Uruguayan experience may provide lessons for how institutions can adapt to bring migrant rights from legal norms into everyday realities. The establishment of a National Migration Council in 2008, with representatives across various government ministries, has been one of the noteworthy developments in this process. In fact, one of the central lessons may be that adaptability alone will not suffice to fulfill the rights of migrants. Looking forward, the true test of effective governance in this changing migration context might prove to be establishing and extending a proactive approach and working across areas of rights practice.


The views expressed in this article belong to the blog’s author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy or the research done by the MIGPROSP team.


About the author

Simca Simpson Lapp is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She has undertaken fieldwork in Montevideo and Buenos Aires for her doctoral project on “Realizing Domestic Workers’ Rights from Institutionalization to Implementation: The Role of Labour, Care and Migration Rights Regimes in Argentina and Uruguay”.

@Simca Simpson

The flaws of the ‘Rome Plan’, promised policy solution to the migration problems in the Mediterranean

By Luca Lixi.

Since the Central Mediterranean route became the main source of irregular arrivals by sea to the EU much political energy has been spent on how to solve the problems arising from the uncontrolled movement of irregular migrants. So far, little progress has been made in developing a humane and medium-long term plan, which protects migrants as well as looking after the interests of the EU. It is against this background that the European Stability Initiative (ESI) has developed a ‘Rome plan’ for a credible and sustainable asylum and migration policy in the Mediterranean. Gerald Knaus, director of ESI and the architect of the (in)famous EU-Turkey deal, wants, through this plan, to make the case to ‘take-back realism’. He intends, in fact, to develop a strategy that can put together principles, tools and interests. Given the paucity of proposals for realistic strategies that guarantee the EU’s values whilst also being politically implementable, this strategy should be welcomed as a contribution to debates on sustainable and humane migration policies. In this paper, however, I criticize some shortcomings of the ‘Rome Plan’. I argue that, overall, this strategy does not offer a viable alternative to the status quo as: 1) it fails, yet again, to give adequate space to the interests of key stakeholders, namely African countries; and 2) it is framed by a narrow and simplistic narrative that understands migration as being driven by the ‘pull factor’, created by the possibility of settling irregularly in Europe. I conclude by suggesting that, while it is important to foresee a plan that also includes elements such as return with Third Countries (TCs), there is no shortcut to this. Cooperation partnerships need to be strengthened with TCs keeping in mind that wins and losses should be equally distributed between all stakeholders involved.
Read More …

Migration Governance in South America: Where is the region heading?

By Marcia Vera-Espinoza, Leiza Brumat and Andrew Geddes

Migration governance in South America seems to be in transition. Following recent interviews with key actors in in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Ecuador as part of the MIGPROSP project we identify three tendencies in migration policy: ‘retreat’, ‘inertia’ and ‘change’. Together, these tendencies suggest that policy development and change in South America is unlikely to take the form of a unidirectional ‘tide’ be it liberal or illiberal, but will rather be non-linear and dependent on domestic conditions of governance and governability that shape how rhetorical commitments ‘hit the ground’. These conditions can include the state of the economy, but also other critical factors such as changes of government and political will. Read More …

“Safe return review” refugee policy: counter-productive and morally indefensible

Exploring the government’s new refugee policy, Marcia Vera Espinoza, Clara Sandelind, and Brid Ni Ghráinne argue that the process could prove to be damaging in multiple ways, all while not benefitting anyone. They conclude that it will be difficult to enforce, it will erode social cohesion, and will render the processes of integration meaningless.

Opposition has quickly risen against the government’s “safe return review” policy. This new policy means that after five years in the UK, the situation in a refugee’s country of origin will be reviewed and if it is deemed to be “safe”, the UK will seek to return the individual rather than offer them permanent settlement. The previous process, in place since 2005, was a straightforward process that granted settlement when a refugee applied after an initial five years leave granted by their refugee status. Reviews were carried only in exceptional circumstances. The latest policy by the Home Office of actively reviewing all individual cases after 5 years puts in question the UK’s commitment to refugee protection by changing the approach from durable to temporary solutions.

From a legal point of view, the 1951 Refugee Convention permits the cessation of refugee status where it is safe for the individual to return to his country of nationality. In other words, the review policy is not in itself a breach of refugee law. But it is only in very limited circumstances that returns would be lawful. Before removing an individual, states must engage in a thorough analysis of the conditions in the country of nationality. Changes in the circumstances need to be fundamental, such as an end to hostilities, a complete political change, and return to a situation of peace and stability. Such changes also need to be given time to consolidate before any decision on cessation is made. The individual must also be able to re-avail himself of the protection of his country which encompasses physical security and safety, a functioning government, a functioning system of law and justice, and human rights protections. Read More …

MIGPROSP PhD researchers’ thoughts ahead of The Dynamics of Regional Migration Governance conference

By Laura Foley and Andrea Pettrachin

As the two newest recruits to the MIGPROSP project, this is our first conference as part of the team and we are really looking forward to it. The programme for the conference, available here, is packed full of interesting papers and speakers and will make for two days of stimulating discussion. On the eve of the conference, we reflect what we are most excited about for the conference.

Laura: As part of the MIGPROSP project, my research analyses the governance of low-skilled labour migration in Southeast Asia so there are a number of speakers that I look forward to hearing, especially the opening panel on May 25th which includes Nicola Piper and Sandra Lavenex’s paper Regional migration governance in Asia: perspectives ‘from above’ and from below’. In the paper, they contrast the dissociation between formal highly selective mobility norms, which tend to reflect government’s preference for temporary movements of highly skilled professionals, with informal governance “from below” consisting of the “bottom up” mobilisation of civil society actors. In the paper, they seek to identify the venues through which these two largely dissociated processes may be brought closer to another.

On May 26th I am similarly looking forward to hearing Stefan Rother’s paper The uneven migration governance of ASEAN where he explores the uneven governance response to labour migration in Southeast Asia, notably the ‘glaring governance deficit’ of lower-skilled migration. Rother’s contribution will analyse how the governance deficit is addressed by the vibrant civil society in the region who provide ‘migration governance from below’. This is of particular interest as civil society organisations in Southeast Asia are some of the actors that will be included in my research. Read More …