Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Argentina: Resettling Refugees within the Context of an Open Migration Policy

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Argentina: Resettling Refugees within the Context of an Open Migration Policy

Article excerpt

Argentina's human rights-based migration policy has helped regularise regional migrant flows and has also benefitted refugees with special protection needs. Far from jeopardizing the local economy or undermining social cohesion, migrants and resettled refugees have been instrumental in Argentina's swift economic recovery in recent years.

Argentina has a long tradition of immigration. Relatively high local wages, general economic prosperity, sound public education and a liberal legal framework encouraged European immigration, particularly between 1870 and 1914 and - though less significantly - in 1919-39 and 1945-60. By the time of the 1914 national census, one third of the population had been born in Europe, yet, despite some tensions, the experience of integration was largely a successful one.

As European immigration stopped almost completely around 1960, regional migrants became increasingly significant. In the 1990s Argentina experienced numerous regional migrant flows, attracted by job opportunities and the favourable dollar-peso exchange rate. Paradoxically the national legal framework1 and accompanying migration policies had become increasingly restrictive. Even if deportations were rare, the impossibility of regularising their residency left thousands of Paraguayans, Bolivians and Peruvians in a legal limbo, and abuses were frequently reported.2 On the other hand, several studies undertaken around 2000 clearly showed that regional migrants were making a useful contribution to Argentine society. Not only were they rejuvenating an otherwise ageing local population - and bringing cultural diversity at the same time - but their presence was proving essential in economic sectors such as construction, domestic work and the textile industry.

By the end of the decade - somewhat predictably - Argentina had evolved into a two-tier society in which a growing underclass had few or no rights, whether of labour, education or access to health. Moreover, legislation at that time encouraged the denunciation of irregular migrants and even some powerful national trade unions would go out of their way to overtly point at regional migrants as 'stealing jobs'. Regional migrants were becoming easy scapegoats for an increasingly complex economic situation.

The Argentine crisis came to a head in the national economic downturn of 2002 which witnessed a 300% devaluation of the national currency with devastating social consequences. Unemployment rose to 20%; under-employment rose to 17%; 42% of the population were living below the poverty line; and those in extreme poverty reached 27%. Although there was no evidence to support the accusation, at the height of the crisis regional migrants were held responsible for soaring crime rates and unemployment.

After a series of xenophobic attacks against regional migrants, a first step in the right direction was taken in 2002 with the Regional Agreement for Nationals of Member States of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR, i.e. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) and associated states (Bolivia and Chile); the Agreement permitted nationals of any of the six countries to reside in the territories of the others and granted them access to any economic activity on an equal basis with nationals. In 2004, Argentina unilaterally decided to suspend the deportation of migrants in an irregular situation who were nationals of bordering countries. The real turning point, however, only came with the sanction of a new migration law early that year, Law N° 25.871/04, which recognised a human right to migrate, and followed basically the main principles set by the 1990 Convention on migrant workers3; facilitated migratory régularisation; provided for equal treatment under the law for foreigners as for nationals; guaranteed the right to family reunification; and guaranteed access to health, education and social assistance for foreigners irrespective of their migratory status. …

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