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Gender and irregular migration in South America

Tanja Bastia discusses the role of women in South American migration.
Within the region, there used to be two main migration systems. One that centres around Venezuela and Columbia, and the other one that centers around Argentina. But over the last 15, 20 years or so, most people migrate now to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. These are the main countries of immigration within the region. And the countries that people go from includes Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. More generally, what I’d like to point out is that migration is not new, Latin America is a region of immigration. But there is significant nervousness around irregular migration and around regional migration. And the main reason for this is that regional migration is more difficult to control than cross-regional migration.
And so policymakers are much more nervous about regional migration.
So the interesting thing is that in Latin America, women have always played a really important role in migration. And there have always been more women migrating than men in internal migration. So this is when people used to move from the countryside to the city. There have always been more women than men migrating. And this is because there’s always been more work for women in cities. For example, when they found jobs as domestic workers. But regional migration has not always followed pattern. So for some countries, there was a greater participation of women in the migrations. For example, Peruvian women. They’ve always being over-represented in their migration, the region migration streams. But for Bolivian women, this hasn’t always been the case.
But overall, for the region, today women are about 52.5% of all regional migrants, which is one of the highest rates in the world. So within regional migrations, women often find work as domestic workers, as elderly carers, and child minders. This is particularly the case in Brazil, Argentina, Chile as well. They find jobs in the service sector in Chile. For example, working in restaurants as well. And in Argentina and Brazil, women also find work in the garment sector, which has very high levels of exploitation, very long working days, and difficulties of making sure that migrants and migrant women are able to protect their rights. And there’s also migration for sex work.
I think there have been some significant improvements in terms of migration policy over the last 10, 15 years within the region. So one of the trading blocs within Latin America is called Mercosur, which is a trading bloc which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia is an associative member. And there are significant kinds of free movement within this Mercosur agreement. So there is a free residency area for member states, including Bolivia and Chile. So this means that anyone who is a citizen of one of these countries has the right to go into another country and automatically apply for a temporary residency permit for two years, which can then be transformed into permanent residency.
So these are very important improvements, but there also continues to be a number of significant challenges for irregular migrants in the region, which includes women, obviously. And in my own experience of researching Bolivians and Argentina, I would say the most important one is the issue of housing. And many migrants live in appalling housing conditions, which affects women, in particular, because they tend to spend more of their time at home and also carry out a large part of their caring responsibilities at home. But very few migratory organisations are prepared to lobby the government on the housing issue because it is very contentious.
The issue of trafficking and child labour also is going to become more important, particularly as you see a worsening of the economic situation of many of these countries. And with the new government, with a new in change in government in Argentina, it will be imperative to maintain the rights that have been gained so far for migrants and build on what has already been achieved.
Interview with Tanja Bastia, University of Manchester, UK
We asked Tanja the following questions:
Question no.1: What is the picture of irregular migration in Latin America?
Question no.2: What is the role of women in this picture?
Question no.3: What are the policy measures in this region?
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