Blog: Protecting Migrants or Reversing Migration? COVID-19 and the risks of a protracted crisis in Latin America

News | Posted on Thursday 16 July 2020

Jean Grugel shares her overview of the way Covid-19 is exacerbating failures in the protection of migrants’ right to health in Central and South America.

Image - Agência Brasília Ação de conscientização e combate à Covid-19 no Sol Nascente/Pôr do Sol by Agência Brasília - (CC BY 2.0)

As part of the project on Redressing Gendered Health Inequalities of Displaced Women and Girls in Contexts of Protracted Crisis in Central and South America (REGHID), Jean Grugel, along with Pia Riggirozzi and Natalia Cintra of the University of Southampton, recently explored the way Covid-19 is exacerbating failures in the protection of migrants’ right to health in Central and South America. Migrants have already been disproportionately affected by COVID 19 in the region, they argue, with the pandemic presenting an ‘era-defining challenge to inclusive global governance’. Given the scale of the crisis, governments across Central and South America should ‘adopt policies that safeguard the right to health of migrants and refugees regardless of their legal status,  guided by international agreements that protect the rights of the most vulnerable’. 

Latin America is now the epicentre of COVID-19, with more than 3 million cases recorded in the region and more than 130,000 victims of the pandemic.  Those affected are overwhelmingly from the most vulnerable groups, including migrant and displaced populations. Instead of fulfilling their obligation to extend protection and healthcare to the most at-risk communities in the region, some governments are taking advantage of the crisis to carry out forced evictions and deportations, highlighting the widespread denial of migrants’ rights across the region. Lockdowns and border closure have also created a situation where migrants lose support and networks, employment and social security options, as well as the right to dignity. 

This is particularly the case in two major migration corridors involving Central American migrants from the northern triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to Mexico; and from Venezuela to Colombia and Brazil. In both cases, the economic consequences of lockdown and the inhospitable climate for migrants that it has engendered have forced hundreds of Venezuelan and Central American refugees and migrants to go back along the same route they took to flee and to return to the dangerous, deprived, violent conditions that they were trying to escape in the first place.  This new cycle of COVID-catalysed reversal in migration flows is problematic for three key reasons:

First, the forced migratory return will extend situations of protracted displacement in which migrants become trapped in a cycle of forced displacement even within their country of origin; many people are likely to leave again in the future, and, at the same time, this period of protracted displacement exacerbates the risk factors associated with it, including mental and physical violence (assault, sexual violence, etc), as well as limiting access to health and support services. 

Second, reverse migration will increase the financial vulnerability of displaced people and migrants, as they are more likely to live in poverty, at risk of exploitation and abuse.

Finally, those returning to their country of origin may face anti-immigration sentiment and stigmatisation and can find themselves regarded as ‘outsiders’, and as ‘not belonging’ in their country of birth, seen as a drain on the limited economic resources and sometimes feared as a source of disease. 

This blog was summarised by Jean Grugel, in reference to the situational brief, Perspective on Migrants' Right to Health in Latin America during COVID-19, published on Lancet Migration, written by Jean Grugel, along with Pia Riggirozzi and Natalia Cintra from the University of Southampton.

Lancet Migration is a global collaboration between The Lancet and researchers, implementers,  and others in the field of migration and health that aims to address evidence gaps and drive policy change, building on the recommendations of the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health (www.migrationandhealth.org).

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC