This chapter provides an overview of the trends and characteristics of recent migration flows in South America. Specifically, we examine the size of the migrant population, its socio-demographic profile, and selected indicators of social and economic inclusion in six countries: Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. In recent years, these countries have undergone radical transformations in their migration profile, either by witnessing rising levels of intraregional migration, diversification in the origins and motivations of flows, and/or suddenly becoming immigration and transit countries. For instance, the stock of the foreign-born population in South America grew by around 75% between 2015 and 2020 (UNDESA, 2020), while the number of asylum applications increased sixfold during the same period (UNHCR, 2023). These transformations have added a layer of complexity to our understanding of the historic and persistent socioeconomic inequalities that characterise the region, posing additional challenges to migrants’ social and economic inclusion (Zapata & Prieto Rosas, 2020).

The analysis is based on national household surveys and census data available before the COVID-19 pandemic.Footnote 1 The countries included in this analysis were chosen on the basis of their diverse migration experience, with countries such as Argentina and Chile having long-term experience as destinations for regional migrants, while Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay, have recently emerged as attraction nodes in the region’s changing migration landscape.

Although South and other Latin AmericanFootnote 2 countries have been widely praised for their progressive discursive and policy approach to migration and refugee protection in the last quarter century (Acosta, 2018; Jubilut & de Oliveira Lopes, 2018), these have been put to the test by the growing recent flows of people in need of international protection, especially from Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela. The political-institutional emergency, exceptional ad hoc responses adopted by many countries of the region have made evident the gap between the (blunt) progressive discourse—in part to make a political statement vis-a-vis the (lack) of rights of the region’s emigrant populations in the Global North—and the implementation of the progressive legal frameworks (Gandini et al., 2019; Zapata et al., forthcoming). In particular, mass displacement has unveiled many countries’ poor administrative and institutional capacity, low budgets, and, in many cases, lack of political will to honour national, regional, and international commitments (Gandini et al., 2019).

In this context, we understand social inclusion as the process of acquiring well-being, defined as the full exercise of social, economic, political, and cultural rights (Sainsbury, 2012). Inclusion processes consider “participation in social life, access to education, healthcare, as well as basic infrastructure and the availability of material resources such as income and housing. Thus, refers to a process of improvement of the economic, social, cultural and political conditions for the full participation of people in society, which has both objective and subjective dimensions” (CEPAL, 2017, 92).

For migrant and refugee populations, the legislation concerning their entry and permanence in the societies of destination affects this process by shaping their “modes of incorporation” (Sainsbury, 2012). These modes of incorporation are as diverse as the social protection matrixes of host countries, which include the state, international agencies, and civil society as providers of services; as well as social structures and regulatory frameworks including migrants’ access and type of documentation. As has been previously documented, in South and other Latin American countries, there is a broad spectrum of exclusion/inclusion of migrant and refugee populations in social protection schemes, which reflect different assemblages of actors in the provision of services, as well as modes of protection and incorporation, which are often mediated by access to documentation (Vera Espinoza et al., 2021; Zapata et al., 2022). These dynamics pose serious limits to the conventional assimilationist perspective on migrant integration (Portes, 1981). Thus, we propose to analyse observed outcomes against normative frameworks, which in South America are, in principle, generally sufficiently advanced to render migrants as subjects of civil, social, and economic rights, on par with nationals. To this end, we ask: are migrants effectively accessing health, labour, housing, education, and social protection rights on equal conditions to native populations?

As we show throughout the chapter, there are significant gaps with respect to migrants’ and refugees’ access to social and economic rights, which also intertwine with pre-existing intersectional inequalities—in terms of gender, age, race/ethnicity, among others—and an array of other contingent (to crisis) and pre-existing social, political, and economic inequalities that result in the limited or lack of effective social inclusion of these populations across the region.

This chapter is organised into four sections. First, we discuss the historical and long-lasting inequalities in South America in terms of income, gender, and race/ethnicity. Second, we unpack the main migration trends with regard to their magnitude and composition, and migrants’ socio-demographic profile for six countries in the region: Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. Third, we examine the normative social and economic inclusion of migrant populations in countries’ migration and refugee legal framework, while highlighting the gaps in effective inclusion for some selected dimensions. Finally, we conclude with a discussion on the challenges and opportunities for the social inclusion of migrant and refugee populations in this region of the Global South.

Pre-existing Inequalities in the Americas

Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. Its matrix of socioeconomic inequality is conditioned by the economic structure of the region. That is, the labour market acts as the link between the unequal economic structure, especially in terms of access and quality of employment, and the highly unequal distribution of income and, thus, socioeconomic status. Inequality manifests in an array of social indicators—poverty, education, employment, and social protection gaps—and intertwines along the life cycle, disproportionately affecting certain population groups. In addition to socioeconomic status, gender, race/ethnicity, age, and intra and inter rural–urban inequalities are structuring axes of the matrix of social inequality in Latin America (ECLAC, 2016).

Despite the reductions in inequality observed across Latin America in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, with poverty falling from an average of 42.3% in 2002 to 23.1% in 2018, and the Gini coefficient dropping 6.5 points during this period, from 0.528 to 0.463, the systemic lack of equal opportunities for all have rendered these gains fragile. Before the pandemic, the richest 10% of the region’s population had an income 22 times higher than that earned by the bottom 10%, and the richest 1 and 10% took, respectively, 21 and more than 50% of pre-tax national income,Footnote 3 (Busso & Messina, 2020). These disparities in income are partly explained by the high levels of informality in the region, with informal workers comprising, on average, around half of the employed population. Informality, in turn, is associated with job insecurity, low earnings, lack of benefits and pension, and, thus, higher levels of vulnerability. In fact, accessing a job is not so much of a problem, as effective inclusion once in the labour market. Partial inclusion and exclusion take place in highly segmented labour markets where informality and other poor working conditions rule (Weller, 2012). For example, in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, informal employment accounts for over 60% of total employment (Table 12.1).

Table 12.1 Activity, unemployment, and informal employment rates by sex in urban areas for selected countries, circa 2018

Women and other minorities are disproportionately impacted by these dynamics: women have lower rates of labour force participation than men, are overrepresented in the informal labour market and earn 13% less than men; while adjusting for education, afro-descendants and indigenous people earn wages that are, on average, 17 and 27% lower than the rest of the population, respectively (Busso & Messina, 2020, 117). For instance, in the countries analysed, women have rates of labour participation between 17% (Peru) and 31% (Ecuador) lower than men; and the gender gap in terms of unemployment can be as high as close to 50% in Ecuador and Uruguay and 66% in Colombia (Table 12.1).

When inequalities, in terms of gender and ethnicity are considered, the evidence points to a significant divide in education and labour affecting indigenous and afro-descendent women. On average in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay, afro-descendent women have 2 years of education less than non-afro non-indigenous women, and 1.4 years of education less than non-afro non-indigenous men. Also, average monthly earnings for afro-descendent women are 36% lower than the earnings of non-afro non-indigenous women, and 60% lower than earnings for non-afro non-indigenous men (ECLAC, 2016, 35).

As we show in the third section, the migrant/refugee condition adds an additional layer of social and economic disadvantage for these populations, complexifying these dynamics and rendering mobile women and ethnic minorities as particularly vulnerable groups. However, there are differences in the way that states administer these diverse inequalities. As Sainsbury has pointed out, the very nature of welfare state regimes affects migrants’ access to social rights. Thus, countries such as Argentina and Uruguay seem to have less tolerance for high levels of inequality, while Andean countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru seem to be more tolerable (Vera Espinoza et al., 2021). Although all countries analysed in this chapter are unequal, on paper, they display relatively similar patterns in terms of inclusion, even though they are rather heterogeneous in the way they effectively guarantee access to social rights (Blofield et al., 2020; Midaglia et al., 2017).

Migration Trends and Socio-demographic Profile of Migrant Populations

In this setting of structural inequalities, South American countriesFootnote 4 have experienced intense regional migration flows since the 1950s—especially between bordering countries, which at times seemed to be an extension of internal migration dynamics—with nodes of attraction historically centred around the most advanced economies of Venezuela, Argentina, and, since the late 1990s, Chile (Bengochea, 2018). Extraregional emigration to the United States (US) and Europe has also been an important feature of South American migration dynamics since the 1970s, reaching its highest point in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, after the 2008 Global Economic Crisis and up to 2015, the return of South Americans accompanied by their families, especially from the United States and Spain, and Colombian intraregional migration have dominated the region´s international mobility landscape (Cerrutti & Parrado, 2015; Martínez-Pizarro & Rivera-Orrego, 2016; Prieto-Rosas & Bengochea, 2022). Another important long-term feature of the region’s migration pattern is the fact that extraregional migration flows have consistently been losing ground (Masferrer & Prieto, 2019).

Since 2015, intraregional migration in South America has displayed unprecedented growth rates (Fig. 12.1). Between 2015 and 2020, the stock of the foreign-born population in the region grew by around 75%. Most of this growth is attributable to Venezuelan displacement, which represented 39% of all immigration in South America in that five-year period. According to the UN Population Division, in 2020, the number of Venezuelans that had settled in another South American country since 2015 was around 4.1 million, an equivalent to the total stock of regional migrants recorded in South America in the decades of the 1990s or the 2000s (Fig. 12.1). All other flows originating in the South American region have shown modest growth rates in this period, except for Colombia, whose emigrant stock in the region grew 50% from 2005 to 2010.

Fig. 12.1
A stacked graph depicts the estimated stock of foreign-born population in South America. The countries include Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Other South American, and the rest of the world. 2020 depicts the total crossing 10,000,000. Venezuela has the greatest growth.

(Source United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division [UNDESA, 2020]. International Migrant Stock 2020)

Estimated stock of the foreign-born population in South America by origin, 1990–2020

The Venezuelan exodus has transformed the landscape of international migration in South America, turning countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru into net immigration countries for the first time since records exist (1950), and Venezuela itself—which was the second major destination of regional migrants in South America—into a net emigration country with—22 emigrants per thousand inhabitants in the 2015–2020 period (Prieto-Rosas & Bengochea, 2022).

In addition to these transformations in the magnitude and composition of the foreign-born population in South America, the expansion in the number of people in search of international protection has been another remarkable change produced by the mass displacement from Venezuela, but also by the incorporation of Caribbean flows into the South American migration system. In fact, the number of annual asylum applications from citizens of Venezuela, Cuba, and Haiti surpassed that of Colombians for the first time since 2000 (Fig. 12.2). Cuban nationals have mainly sought refuge in Ecuador and Uruguay, while Haitians headed to Brazil, in both cases either settling permanently into these countries or spending long periods of time in transit to Mexico and the United States (Correa Alvarez, 2013; Freier et al., 2019; Prieto Rosas et al., 2022; Trabalón, 2019).

Fig. 12.2
A stacked bar graph depicts the number of asylum applications received in South American countries from 2000 to 2004, 2005 to 2009, 2010 to 2014, and 2015 to 2019. Venezuela depicts the highest value in 2020 at 650,000.

(Source United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR, 2023]. Note Values for five-year periods show accumulated annual figures)

Number of asylum applications received in South American countries by claimant’s nationality, 2000–2019

As a result of the above-mentioned transformations, around 2018, all South American countries, even those with no previous experience of immigration, had seen their foreign-born population increase, representing about 2% of the total population in Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, 4.5% in Chile, 5.5% in Argentina, and 0.6% in Peru. In all these countries, except Chile, which along with Argentina, has a longer tradition as a magnet for regional flows, Venezuelans are by far the largest national origin among recent migrants. In all countries, recent flows are also composed either by migrants from neighbouring countries, returnees from Spain and the United States, or by Caribbean migrants from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti (Table 12.2).

Table 12.2 Main sociodemographic characteristics of recent immigrants in selected South American countries, circa 2018

The socio-demographic profile of recent migrants differs from that of long-term migrants in the region, in terms of age and/or education. In some countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, recent immigration has rejuvenated a population stock that had not been renewed since the mid-twentieth century, after European immigration ceased. Also, better-qualified Venezuelan migrants have somewhat transformed the pre-existing pattern dominated by less skilled border migrants. As shown in Table 12.2, it is remarkable that in Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay, between 45 and 67% of recent immigrants have university degrees. This contrasts with the relative distribution of recent migrants by educational attainment observed in Colombia, where 59% had not completed secondary education.

Migrants’ Formal vs. Effective Social and Economic Inclusion

Since the turn to the twenty-first century, LAC countries have witnessed a shift towards a more ‘liberal’ discursive and policy approach to migration and refugee protection. This progressive turn can be attributed to the confluence of a series of factors, such as the political-ideological changes brought about by the rise to power of centre-left governments in many countries of the region, especially in South America, the intensification of the process of regional integration, the ripening of historical demands made by civil society, and the rapidly changing dynamics of mobility in this traditionally emigrant-sending region (Acosta & Freier, 2015; Ceriani & Freier, 2015; Freier, 2015). This shift can be elucidated, for instance, by the fact that, in the past two decades, 17 LAC countries ratified the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families; all countries, except Barbados, Cuba, and Guyana, had ratified the 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, and 15 countries had, fully or partially, incorporated the 1984 Cartagena DeclarationFootnote 5 into their national legislations (Table 12.3) (Acosta & Harris, 2022; Zapata & Prieto Rosas, 2021).

Table 12.3 Main characteristics of migration and refugee legal frameworks in selected countries, 2022

Latin American countries have also signed a series of subregional binding instruments for the free movement and equal treatment of its citizens: the 2002 Residency Agreement for Nationals of the MERCOSUR States, Bolivia, and Chile; the 2006 Central American Free Mobility Agreement; and the 2021 Andean Migration Status. Since it came into force in 2009, the MERCOSUR agreement has conferred the right to free mobility, as well as social and economic rights to citizens of the bloc and associated members, all South American countries except Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela that did not ratify it.

They have also made efforts to work collectively in the area of migration through the establishment of non-binding regional forums and consultative bodies such as the 1996 Regional Conference on Migration (Proceso de Puebla) and the 2000 South American Conference on MigrationFootnote 6 (Proceso de Lima). These were established as spaces for inter-state coordination, debate, and exchange of information and best practices, to promote migrants’ rights and an integral approach to mobility in the framework of the economic and social development of the region (IOM, 1996, 2000).

Furthermore, 38 countries belonging to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) signed the 2013 Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development. The Consensus, a follow-up to the 1994 Cairo Conference, has among its priority actions, the assistance and protection of migrants, regardless of migration status, and guaranteeing the inclusion of international migration in national, regional, and global agendas and strategies (Zapata & Prieto Rosas, 2021).

More recently, building on the regional framework of Cartagena, 28 countries and 3 territories in LAC adopted the 2014 Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action, agreeing to work together to uphold the highest international and regional protection standards, implement innovative solutions for refugees and other displaced people and end the plight of stateless persons throughout the region in the following decade (Brazil Declaration, 2014).

In South America, Argentina was a pioneer in passing a human rights-oriented legislation in 2004 (25,871) recognising a person’s right to migrate as ‘essential and inalienable’, which the country pledged to guarantee on the basis of the principles of equality and universality. On the heels of this law, the country incorporated the Cartagena Declaration’s expanded definition in its 2006 General Law for the Recognition and Protection of Refugees (Law 26,165). Under these laws, all migrants and refugees are afforded access to basic rights such as health, education, and social assistance, while labour rights are reserved for regular migrants who hold residency permits (see Table 12.3).

Uruguay also took similar measures with the passing of the Law on the Right to Refuge and Refugees (18,076) in 2006 and Law 18,250 in 2008, which also guaranteed due process and equal rights on par with nationals, regardless of sex, race, language, religion, economic and legal status, etc. With one of the most progressive laws in the region, migrants and refugees in Uruguay are guaranteed access to civil, basic health, education, housing, labour rights, and social protection, regardless of migratory status.

Ecuador was the first country in South America to include the expanded definition of the Cartagena Declaration into its refugee legislation in 1992 (Executive Decree 3301). In 2008, it passed a constitutional reform recognising the ‘universal right to migrate’, and although its Organic Law of Human Mobility was only enacted in 2017 (and amended in 2021), it extends health, education, and social protection rights to all migrants and refugees, regardless of migration status. Access to the labour market is limited to residence permit holders (Acosta & Harris, 2022).

In Peru, Law 27.891/2002 recognised the rights of refugees according to the international instruments ratified by the country and adopted the expanded definition of Cartagena. More recently, Legislative Decree 1350/2017 aligned the country’s migration framework with the principles of international law, guaranteeing basic rights for all migrants and special protections for vulnerable populations such as LGBTI, victims of smuggling, trafficking, and gender-based violence (Blouin and Button, 2018). Under these normative instruments, migrants and refugees are guaranteed basic access to health and education, while social protection and labour rights are reserved for regular migrants holding residence permits.

In contrast, Colombia, an important sending country in the region, with around 10% of its population residing abroad (Zapata, 2019), has historically lagged behind in terms of immigrant legislation. A coordinating mechanism, a National Migration System (SNM), was created in 2011 (Law 1465). Although it aims to support the government in the design, implementation, and evaluation of migration policies, it focuses primarily on the Colombian diaspora (Zapata, 2021). Only in 2021, the country sought to align its Integral Migration Policy (PIM) with its political constitution and international Human Rights obligations. Law 2136 is centred, among others, on the principles of sovereignty, reciprocity, equality, and the recognition of migrants as subjects of rights, to promote safe, orderly, and regular migration. This law reaffirmed that migrants and refugees should enjoy the (civil) rights and guarantees granted by the Constitution, with access to emergency healthcare, education, and the labour market reserved for some residence permit categories (Acosta & Harris, 2022).

Similarly, although Chile enacted a Refugee Law, which incorporated Cartagena’s expanded definition of refugee in 2010, the country’s security-oriented migration law from the dictatorship era (Decree 1094/1975), was only changed in 2021. Although Chile’s Ley de Migración y Extranjería 21.325/2021 frames migration in a language of inclusion and protection of human rights, it retains part of its national security focus by setting limits and restrictions for accessing these protections (Doña-Reveco, 2021). As such, the law guarantees equal treatment on par with nationals with regard to access to civil rights, and basic health and education for all migrants and refugees, while housing and labour rights and social protection are afforded only to regular migrants who hold residence permits.

In addition, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay also contemplated measures for the state’s promotion of migratory regularisation as a central principle of their migration laws (CELS and CAREF, 2020).

However, as has been widely documented, these progressive laws have been put to the test by the recent mass influx of migrants and displaced persons, primarily from Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela (Gandini et al., 2019; Zapata & Tapia Wenderoth, 2022; Freier & Doña-Reveco, 2022). Two main trends can be identified with regard to the political-institutional responses to these flows. First, there is broad heterogeneity across countries in terms of the full implementation of these progressive laws, with Argentina and Uruguay using the legal frameworks in place. Meanwhile, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru have relied on ad hoc instruments such as visas or temporary residence permits to welcome these populations. Second, the response has been characterised by high levels of discretionary and the absence of a coherent and coordinated regional response, comprising instead the adoption of a mosaic of ‘exceptional’, temporary measures to manage these mixed flows. In most countries, these implementation gaps may be the result of lack of administrative capacity or unfavourable political conditions, and the coexistence of a plethora of restrictive practices—resulting from incomplete transitions from security-oriented dictatorship era to human rights-based legislations—that ultimately limit protections and rights (Acosta et al., 2019; Ceriani, 2018; Gandini et al., 2019). For instance, the region’s initial widely praised open and generous response to Venezuelan displacement has morphed into increasing levels of xenophobia, stricter entry restrictions, militarisation and/or closure of borders, and the production of ‘irregularity’ in countries such as Ecuador, Peru, and Chile (Acosta et al., 2019).

This is not surprising given the many peculiarities and contradictions that characterise Latin America’s mobility dynamics, especially with regard to forced migration. On the one hand, the region both produces and receives a substantial number of migrants and refugees, legal frameworks have incorporated multiple humanitarian international and regional instruments of protection, and many countries have advanced in establishing resettlement programmes and humanitarian entry visas to guarantee safe access to potential refugees, such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (Jubilut et al., 2021). In addition, some countries, especially in South America, have used the state’s discretionary power to implement complementary protection alternatives such as humanitarian stay visas, the Union of South American Nations’ citizenship (for now just a proposal), and the aforementioned Mercosur Residence Agreement. On the other hand, a multiplicity of challenges to Refugee Status Determination (RSD), such as curtailed access to the territory, inadequate RSD procedures, and/or lack of institutional capacity vis-a-vis growing demands, have proliferated in recent years (Ceriani, 2018; Jubilut & de Oliveira Lopes, 2018).

As recent studies have shown, there is a gradient of effective inclusion/exclusion of migrants and refugees in social protection policies and programmes, across the region, which was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one end, there are countries with clear legal frameworks that guarantee full inclusion, where migrants and refugees are seen as subjects of rights (Brazil and Uruguay). At the other end, there are countries such as Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, characterised by legal ambiguity and partial inclusion, where migrants and refugees are considered humanitarian subjects, with protection resting upon ad hoc, contingent measures. Somewhere in the middle of the gradient, Ecuador stands out by its legal ambiguity, full inclusion on paper but outright exclusion in practice, with migrants and refugees also seen as humanitarian subjects (Vera Espinoza et al., 2021; Zapata et al., 2022). Thus, even though in all countries, either constitutions and/or migration laws guarantee equal treatment on par with nationals, in practice, regular migration status acts as a barrier to the access and effective exercise of certain social and economic rights. For instance, in Colombia and Ecuador, irregular migrants only have effective access to emergency health services, and Decree 804/2019 forbids access to existing cash transfer programmes for non-Ecuadorian nationals. Meanwhile, in Argentina and Uruguay, access to non-contributory social transfers such as old-age and disability pensions, is limited to those with legal residency (CAREF, 2020). In short, we are witnessing a process of limited social inclusion, where the migrant/refugee condition is superimposed and intertwines with pre-existing inequalities, adding an additional layer of social and economic disadvantage for these populations. In addition, states’ inability to adequately guarantee migrants’ basic rights, especially in times of crisis, has brought to the fore the fact that many rights are contemplated only on paper but not in practice.

Gaps in the Effective Access to Social and Economic Rights

The highly uneven implementation of the country-case’s progressive legal frameworks, along with the magnitude and velocity of unprecedented migration flows, resulted in a puzzle for social inclusion. To what extent did migrants effectively access health, labour, housing, education, and social protection rights on equal conditions to native populations? In this section we examine a selection of indicators to address this question. Still, it is important to note that appropriate data on the well-being of migrants is scarce and is hardly comparable between the different contexts of arrival, which challenges our comparative understanding of the process of social inclusion in South America. Household surveys are the timeliest instrument to examine the living conditions of migrant populations but not all of them include representative samples of these populations. For example, the number of migrants included in survey samples tends to be very small to produce valid estimates disaggregated by sex, race/ethnicity, and national origin. Also, household surveys do not include collective dwellings in their samples which challenges the study of newly arrived migrants often living in hostels, pensiones, and other types of non-private housing. Despite these limitations, we can still produce some indicators that point to the gap between migrants and native populations on housing and labour conditions using data from household surveys and, when possible, censuses—a preferable data source given the nature of its universal coverage. Yet, these indicators may underestimate the number of migrants in a given population, and thus, overestimate the well-being of migrant populations (Fig. 12.6).

The analysis indicates that, except for Peru, recent migrantsFootnote 7 tend to have higher labour participation rates than natives, ranging from 20% in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador to 40% in Chile (Fig. 12.6). In terms of unemployment, the magnitude of the gap between recent migrants and natives is quite high, with extreme cases such as Peru, where the unemployment rate is four times higher for immigrants (Fig. 12.6). Given the pre-existing gender gaps found in these countries (Fig. 12.1), presumably such differences in access to the labour market between recent migrants and natives may be larger for migrant women. Previous research, based on census and survey data from 2010 to 2015, showed that unemployment affects female migrants to a greater extent than male migrants. Also, the gender gap was found to be larger among migrants than natives in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay (Carrasco & Suárez, 2018).Footnote 8 Labour market gaps also manifest in (poorer) working conditions for migrants. For example, in Uruguay, inequalities in wages by gender and race/ethnicity are superimposed on migratory status, with recent Afro-descendant immigrants working in low paid jobs, making 80% less than non-migrant white natives (Márquez et al., 2020).

This precarious labour incorporation also manifests in (poorer) access to adequate housing, with recent immigrants being generally more exposed to overcrowding,Footnote 9 and other inadequate conditions such as lack of ventilation and irregular and unfair tenancy (Bengochea & Madeiro, 2020; Marcos & Mera, 2018; Mera, 2020). As shown in Fig. 12.6, Chile and Colombia have the largest gaps between recent migrants and the native population, with overcrowding affecting, respectively, 60 and 40% more recent immigrants than natives. These remarkable differences may be explained by the fact that the data sources for these two countries (census) include private and collective dwellings. In contrast, for other countries where the gap is smaller, the data comes from household surveys, which, oftentimes, exclude collective dwellings, plagued with inadequate housing conditions.

In addition to the above-mentioned gaps in migrants’ effective access to housing and labour rights, it is worth highlighting that there are other inequalities within this group related to stratification on the basis of national origins and/or the implementation of national legal frameworks. The discretionary misuse and implementation of migration and refugee laws (Jubilut et al., 2021; Zapata et al., forthcoming) and the interplay between migration laws and regional agreements—e.g. Mercosur (CAREF, 2020) translates into a wide and complex array of migrant categories which determine different conditions of access to rights with regard to health, education, labour, and social protection, an important particularity when speaking of inequality in this region. A clear example of these trends is the proliferation of migrant categories that confer different rights and thus, lead to a variety of documentation trajectories among Venezuelan displaced populations in Colombia and Peru (Gandini et al., 2019).


As has been shown throughout the chapter, South America is a unique setting to study the interplay between mobility and inequality. Given the multiple pre-existing layers of inequality that characterise the region, the influx and settling of populations originating in other highly unequal societies challenge the classical understanding of the drivers of migration (why people move) and the incorporation or integration of migrant populations into host societies. On the one hand, South–South migration does not fit into the rationale of the neoclassical perspective, given that the benefits of migrating would barely compensate for the costs, in the context of migration from unequal origins to unequal destinations, or mobility between “transnational third worlds” (Santos, 2004). On the other hand, the conventional assimilationist perspective on migrant integration (Portes, 1981) overlooks destination settings where even the desired standard (native’s living conditions) would be less than optimal.

The analysis presented in this chapter has shown that in many countries of the region, significant portions of the population (immigrant and native alike) face very high levels of labour informality, and women and ethnic minorities in particular, are confronted by several difficulties in materialising their education, housing, and labour rights. Despite the limited inclusion of migrants and refugees into the host societies, there is evidence pointing to relative improvements but also worsening in some dimensions of well-being with respect to the origin country. For instance, for many Dominicans and Peruvians, working in Uruguay represented the first time that they held a formal job (Prieto Rosas et al., 2022); while Venezuelans, accustomed to enjoying a certain level of social protection before the country’s grave socio-political and economic crisis, have experienced a process of pauperisation after migrating to countries such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile (Blouin & Freier, 2019; Gandini et al., 2020). Therefore, it is imperative to not only recognise that migration status introduces an extra layer of inequality and thus, of social differentiation, but that this occurs in already highly segmented contexts with multiple layers of inequality that feed on each other.

To overcome these limitations, we employed an alternative way of analysing migrants’ effective integration by comparing observed outcomes against normative frameworks, which in South America are, in principle, generally sufficiently advanced as to render migrants as subjects of civil, social, and economic rights, on par with nationals. Despite the region’s highly praised progressive legal framework, there are serious implementation gaps that not only make it difficult to guarantee migrants’ effective social inclusion but also produce new—and reproduce the region’s long entrenched and persistent—inequalities. This may be the result of the lack of migration policies and programmes to address the specific needs of the migrant population, as well as the legal and documentation stratification that results from the discretionary—at times arbitrary—implementation of the migration and refugee laws already in place. This particular kind of stratification mediates these population’s effective access to social and economic rights.

The recent large influx of migrants and refugees has worsened existing dynamics and has provoked a normative backlash, exacerbated by the pandemic. This has been expressed through the use of hierarchically inferior legal instruments, which have weakened the progressive nature of the laws and made it harder for these populations to access certain rights, resulting in exclusion. This backlash is partially a response to the (worrying) rising levels of xenophobia in the region. For instance, in 2020, respectively, over half of the population in Uruguay, Colombia, and Ecuador agreed with the proposition that “immigrants come to compete for our jobs”, while just around a third of the population of these countries agreed with this statement in 2015. In addition, between 40 and 80% of the population believed that the arrival of immigrants harmed their country (Latinobarómetro, 2020). Thus, these trends reflect the recent proliferation of additional legal and symbolic barriers, as well as overt and covert discrimination by the state or members of society to be overcome by migrants and refugees in South America.