Latin America has traditionally been seen as a welcoming region for migrants with relatively low rates of xenophobia. However, in recent years tensions around Venezuelan immigration have risen. This xenophobia might be driven by stereotypes about migrants as a security threat. The large-scale migration of Venezuelans since 2015, in the wake of their country’s political-economic crisis, has allegedly created significant challenges for other Latin American countries. It is estimated that more than 6 million people migrated to Latin America in 2022, which has created political, social, and economic issues. This is especially true for countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, which have received larger numbers of Venezuelans.
Such discussions overlook the advantages of migration for host countries. To reap these benefits, countries must develop policies to facilitate the social and labor market integration of immigrants. However, debates in the public sphere have resulted in contradictory national agendas and discourses about Venezuelans. Various sectors of the state have tried to create social inclusion policies, but at the same time have cast Venezuelans as a danger to the national well-being. This xenophobic discourse has led to authoritarian national security policies. This article examines rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Latin America, despite the benefits of immigration for host countries.
Venezuelan immigration has highlighted imbalances in the capacity of states to assist new migrants. The oversaturation of borders, many of which have poor facilities for receiving and processing new arrivals, has generated concern among local populations.
UN Migration data from 2023 suggest that the number of Venezuelans in Colombia, the top host country in the region for Venezuelan migrants, doubled from 2018 to 2023. Colombia experienced social tensions around migration, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Colombians were concerned that the state would spend resources on serving the new migrant population instead of its nationals.
Data from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) indicate that before the pandemic, there were 60,000 Venezuelans in Peru. This number of Venezuelan migrants increased 25 times by the beginning of 2023. There is ongoing discontent in Peru about migration, fueled by politicians and the media, which cast migrants as a danger to security, culture, and development. In Chile, protests were more violent than in other countries. Chileans harassed migrants and burned their belongings in migrant camps in Iquique (on the border with Peru). Chilean protests aimed to show that migrants were not welcome and that they should return to Venezuela.
As irregular migration increases, Latin American has grappled with growing xenophobia, as various countries fear that Venezuelan migrants could destroy their established order. Conservatives in the region see Venezuela as a communist country and view communism and the Chavista oligarchy as the main cause of the developing country’s poverty. Furthermore, communism is generally understood in the region to be responsible for societal loss of values, morals, and individual rights, as well as high levels of corruption, authoritarianism, and political violence. In most Latin American countries, political and popular discourse against Venezuelan migrants is extremely negative. Migrants are used as a social scapegoat and blamed for increasing crime, insecurity, unemployment, budget deficits, problems with public services, and even rising divorce rates.
Across Latin America, and especially in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, aid for Venezuelan migrants has been contradictory. For example, in almost all cases—with the exception of Brazil—, national policies were created to expel illegal migrants, borders were militarized, and public security policies were established to prevent "crime by Venezuelans." Meanwhile, policies to regulate the status of migrants were also set up so that migrants could enter the job market and contribute to the GDP.
In Colombia, the state launched campaigns against xenophobia, and the attorney general’s office began an oversight project during the 2019 elections to prevent xenophobic and discriminatory speeches targeting Venezuelan refugees or migrants. Under Duque’s government (2018-2022), the Colombian state created a temporary protection status for Venezuelan migrants to regularize their status. Enabling migrants to obtain legal documents meant that they could enter the labor market and access basic rights, such as health, education, and housing. These policies have continued under Petro’s government, although with lower prioritization in the national development plan.
In Brazil, under Temer’s government (2016-2018), migration policies led to laws to facilitate the regularization of Venezuelans and their access to basic rights and public services. In Roraima (a Brazilian state on the border with Venezuela), screening centers were set up to receive, immunize, and regularize migrants before they were referred to other states. Under Bolsonaro’s government, Venezuelans were recognized as political refugees. This could also be seen as a political strategy to undermine the Maduro government and leftist ideologies. Although Brazil did not receive the highest numbers of Venezuelan immigrants, it has the highest rate of legally-documented refugees in the region. Lula’s government is currently continuing to maintain a welcoming stance. However, it understands that the federal government must keep an eye on migration flows and establish good relationships with Maduro’s government in order to work together on viable solutions to the crisis.
Finally, in Peru, authorities felt pressured to take steps to deal with the situation. Peruvian policies have tended to fluctuate between open hostility and selective hospitality. On the one hand, new policy measures have expanded migration control procedures, expulsions, refusals to grant entry at the border, and identity checks. Some discourses cast immigrants as undesirable residents. Despite adopting labor integration policies, humanitarian visas, and providing access to public services, the Peruvian state has also pursued security policies to toughen the country’s entry laws and facilitate the expulsion of migrants with criminal records. These measures were linked to the police operation known as "Secure Migration" in 2019. Under Boluarte’s government, some laws have been passed to improve regularization of migration, but immigration laws have also continued to tighten. States of emergency have been declared in border regions, including permanently installing armed forces and police in these areas.
There are crucial elements of the immigration situation in Latin America that merit further reflection. Although some inclusive policies having been implemented, many societies still perceives Venezuelan migrants as "other." In light of these fears, it is important to highlight the benefits that Venezuelan immigration offers to host countries. Venezuelans have a demographic profile similar to the people of the region as a whole. In other words, almost two-thirds of Venezuelan immigrants are of working age and almost half are women. This will facilitate their absorption into the labor market. It is also worth noting than Venezuelans in Peru mostly work in the informal sector (29.3 percent). Migration has a positive impact on economic growth. According to IMF estimates, Venezuelan migration could stimulate GDP growth in Peru, Chile, and Colombia, if appropriate integration policies are put in place. In Colombia and Peru, the perception that a large number of migrants were arriving led to tightening requirements for entry and regularization of immigrants and refugees. These measures were motivated in part by local xenophobia.
Finally, the scope of Venezuelan migration has highlighted socioeconomic and structural weaknesses in South American countries with regard to welcoming and integrating immigrants.