5 migration trends in the Americas to watch in 2024
Lessons learned from 2023 and what to watch in the new year amid record migration across the hemisphere
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Migration has reached record levels in the Americas. And while many migrants remain in Latin America and the Caribbean, they are increasingly setting their sights on the US, Canada, and Europe due to poor economic conditions, political instability, and growing violence and insecurity in various countries. Once unthinkable, more than 500,000 have crossed the perilous Darien Gap connecting Colombia and Panama while heading north thus far this year, more than doubling last year’s then-record figures.
The Americas are at a crossroads, and the countries of the hemisphere have adopted increasingly multifaceted responses. Caricom is moving to further expand free movement in the Caribbean, and several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have introduced regularization programs or creative, ad hoc pathways to provide protection. At the same time, many countries are increasingly hardening their approaches and turning towards securitized border enforcement. Some countries have engaged in diplomatic squabbles over cooperation, while others have worked closely together to adopt joint strategies, to share information, and to facilitate regular migration. But overall, there is a greater level of regional coordination on migration than ever before. The Biden administration in the United States has gotten involved, too, doubling down this year on its dual approach to open legal pathways from across the hemisphere while simultaneously externalizing border enforcement and attempting to halt irregular migration through the Americas heading north.
Looking ahead to 2024, these are some of the trends I am watching and believe will play a leading role in the migration landscape across the Western Hemisphere in the new year. The list is non-exhaustive, but hopefully serves as a useful point of departure.
Maritime migration is growing
Haiti is in crisis
Climate change impacts human mobility
Investment in integration matters
Elections will be key
Maritime migration is growing. Maritime migration in the Caribbean has increased greatly in the last couple of years, often on overpacked, poorly equipped, and/or makeshift vessels that leave those aboard incredibly vulnerable. In 2022 alone, IOM’s Missing Migrants Project documented over 320 deaths and disappearances of migrants in the Caribbean, a likely undercount. Most attempting to migrate by boat want to arrive to the US, but reporting indicates that some of this migration is also directed to countries such as Jamaica, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, and others across the Caribbean Basin.
Migration continues to persist despite deterrence efforts, with migrants instead finding new—often more dangerous—routes. And as the Darien Gap and other land-based routes become increasingly difficult to traverse amid growing enforcement efforts, migrants will increasingly look to the ocean. The US Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) currently present in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala offer a potential alternative to embarking on these dangerous migration journeys, but they will only thrive if access is expanded both to other countries and in terms of who may benefit. The US humanitarian parole pathway for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, meanwhile, has found success, but similarly faces challenges in terms of lack of access. As of yet, some migrants believe they have a better chance taking to the sea.
Haiti is deep in crisis. The francophone country lacks publicly-elected or -backed representation, and gangs mercilessly rule large swaths of territory. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians left for Brazil and eventually Chile following the 2010 earthquake, but the current crisis is reaching new heights as the exodus grows. Internal displacement is also rampant, reaching nearly 200,000 IDPs thus far, per IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix.
Many of the Haitians that originally moved to South America have set their sights north, in addition to those leaving Haiti for the first time. The United States and Canada are the principal countries of destination—both already hosting significant diasporas—but Mexico has also become a growing country of destination, or at least temporary rest. The humanitarian parole pathway to the US has been a crucial outlet for protection and regular migration, but at the same time, many remain left out. The prognosis is the same for Canada’s recently announced humanitarian family reunification pathway, and the francophone province of Quebec has crucially opted to not take part.
Haitians will continue to flee in greater numbers, and improved regional coordination and efforts will surely be needed to address the crisis, not just within the country, but also for those migrating and their new receiving communities.
The threat of climate change is real and is already having an impact on human mobility. Rapid-onset events such as hurricanes and heavy rains directly cause displacement, while slow-onset impacts of climate change such as worsening droughts and rising sea levels contribute to the multifaceted nature of migratory intentions. Some of the world’s most vulnerable states to climate change and natural disasters are located in the Caribbean.
Much of the impacts of climate change on human mobility are quiet and hard to calculate, but among the more direct impacts, natural disasters caused 2.1 million internal displacements across the Americas in 2022, according to IDMC. This is not solely concentrated in Latin America and the Caribbean: it is a problem for citizens of the US and Canada, too. Natural disasters caused 675,000 internal displacements in the US last year, alongside 15,000 in Canada.
The impacts of climate change on human mobility will continue, both in terms of fueling migration and displacement and making lives more difficult for those that are not able to (or will not) migrate. The ever-worsening El Niño effect has been wreaking havoc in recent months and will continue to do so in early 2024, inflicting above average rains in regions such as coastal Ecuador and Peru and southern Brazil and causing increased drought risk in regions such as the Central American Dry Corridor, northern Argentina, and much of Brazil.
The majority of climate change-related migration is internal, and the consequences of slow-onset impacts of climate change are often made invisible, making the issue underappreciated in the Americas. But it is a policy challenge meriting attention, both domestically within countries and also internationally in the cases where it manifests across borders.
Investing in integration matters. The vast majority—over 6 million—of Venezuela’s diaspora lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, upwards of half a million Haitians are in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean states, and Mexico saw a record number of asylum requests this year as migrants increasingly see the country not just as the next-door neighbor of the US but also as a potential home. However, many are also struggling to integrate, leading to a rise in multilegged migration journeys, with Venezuelans and Haitians trekking through the Darien Gap from third countries in South America as they head north to the US.
Last month, the US, Canada, South Korea and Spain announced alongside IDB a combined $89 million investment in grants to support infrastructure and social services for migrants and their receiving communities, a historic commitment to advance integration. Such initiatives are crucial—both for the migrants themselves and for their receiving communities, who have an opportunity to grow and develop economically and culturally.
The importance of making an effort to promote integration is also true for highly developed economies such as the US and Canada. Despite labor shortages, many migrants and asylum seekers can face difficulties with getting work authorization or working in their area of expertise. Affordable, decent housing is a challenge, too. Poorly integrated migration can then spark greater tensions and negatively impact social cohesion, with migrants at times used as scapegoats for politicking and criminalization, thus creating a vicious cycle that harms, rather than builds.
Elections from across the hemisphere will be key. Elections and politics are always fundamental, but 2024 is set to be a blockbuster year. To state the obvious: the US election next year will play an outsized role in the region, not just on migration but on a myriad of issues that help fuel (or damper) migratory intentions. It will also be the first time in 12 years that the US and Mexico hold concurrent elections, and the future of bilateral and regional cooperation will depend heavily on these results. The Republican party primary debates in the US have already seen their fair share of provocative proposals that may rock the boat, including plans to militarily invade Mexico to allegedly take down organized crime.
Elections elsewhere in the hemisphere will also play a pivotal role. Following historic participation in the opposition primaries, Venezuela’s presidential race next year is arguably the country’s most important, competitive election since 2015. Venezuela’s election could spur hope and a new page for the country—or it could lead to increased repression and despair.
In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, the stakes are lower, but may yet prove to have implications for migration policy. The incumbent president, Luis Abinader, has closed the country’s border with Haiti and presided over enforcement policies that have received strong criticism from human rights and civil society organizations. The question remains if the campaign season and subsequent presidential term—whether of Abinader or a newcomer—will maintain the same policies, or potentially even up the tempo, with anti-Haitian sentiment a commonly used tool for politicking.
In Panama, too, elections could dictate if current policies remain or are upended for greater emphasis on enforcement. Despite valid criticisms surrounding conditions in the Darien Gap, the Panamanian government has facilitated migrant transit and not undergone any major campaigns to block migrants from entering the country by land. For the next administration, it will be key to see if they maintain this current approach or lean in to efforts to clamp down on migration that would ultimately just play into the hands of migrant smugglers and traffickers and not actually halt the migration north. Another question is what efforts may be made to improve conditions in the Darien and in migrant camps such as Lajas Blancas, where many of those that cross the jungle arrive prior to boarding buses heading north.
The Americas are experiencing record levels of migration. 2023 has been a historic year, with numerous new policy responses, both to open and to close pathways across the hemisphere. Politics, economics, security, and more will all play a role in determining migratory intentions and receiving communities’ responses in 2024, but if there is anything that history has taught us, it is that human mobility is here to stay.
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