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What is Driving Latin Americans’ Desire to Migrate?

Latin America Advisor, News Analysis, Posted: Dec 19, 2009

What do the poll results suggest about the driving forces behind migration? What is the significance of the poll results to financial services companies (money transfer organizations and others) whose businesses are affected by migration? These questions were posed to three experts on Latin America and development. This article was originally published in the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.

José Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue:

Many thought that immigrants in OECD countries, hit hard by the current crisis, would return home in massive numbers. Such an exodus did not materialize.It’s not surprising that surveys show the desire to emigrate has not dwindled either. Part of the calculation to leave one’s country has to do with the difference in opportunities between the home country and the destination country. Hard times have befallen migrants, but conditions have worsened at home as well,and it’s not clear whether the differential between the two economic environments has increased, decreased or stayed the same.

In the same vein,the drop in remittances to Latin America in 2009 notwithstanding, remittance flows from OECD countries to the region will likely remain vigorous in the medium term. What this means for financial-service and other companies is that this robust market is here to stay.Policymakers should be con- cerned with widening the financial options available to migrants and their families, in order for remittances to promote financial development, as well as well-being more generally. Here, much remains to be done: promoting financial literacy among migrants’ families, for example, and encouraging competition in the money- sending business to keep costs low. Mobile payments are emerging in Latin America as an alternative to banks, thanks to their broad networks and low costs, but their growth is hampered by the lack of a clear regulatory framework. These and other creative measures—including the securitization of future remittance flows, or the issuing of diaspora bonds—are detailed in our 2010 Latin American Economic Outlook.

Gerver Torres, managing partner for Latin America at the Gallup Organization in Washington:

It is understandable that the global financial crisis and recession didn’t have a major impact on Latin Americans’ desire to migrate to other countries. Desires and plans to migrate can take years to emerge. It would take much more than a brief period of economic difficulties in the countries where people desire to move to in order to disrupt such wishes and plans. Bad economic news about a destination country may make some families post- pone their plans,but is unlikely to elimi- nate them. According to our data, there are countries in Latin America with very high percentages of people who would migrate if they had the means to do it.Such is the case for Guyana (60 percent), the Dominican Republic (56 percent), El Salvador (51 percent) and Peru (42 percent).

Some of these countries are doing relatively well economically, which means that the reasons why people living in those countries wish to migrate go beyond economic factors. They are more complex and profound. There are families who migrate seeking better opportunities to educate their children, seeking safety and security,or seeking better jobs. The reasons vary from one country to another and even between regions within a country. There is also a positive social evaluation of migration in the region that won’t be altered by temporary difficult economic circumstances abroad. According to that evaluation, most people in the region think that migration is a win-win game. They consider it to be beneficial for the sending countries (51 percent of respondents),for the recipient countries (50 percent) and for the families who migrate (61 percent). For any Latin American, these evaluations mean that on top of any personal reason to wish to migrate,there is also a social validation of it.

Earl Jarrett, general manager of the Jamaica National Building Society:

I note with interest the results of the Gallup World Poll and am not surprised at the indication that in the Latin America and Caribbean region, the number of people who would like to leave their country of origin is equal to or exceeds the number interested in moving to developed countries permanently. The desire to migrate outwards reflects the fact that many countries in the region have not yet been able to adjust their economic policies and address the challenges in their legal and justice systems; hence citizens in the region do not find their home environment hospitable to their needs. In most instances, migrants’ aspirations have been linked directly to the search for economic opportunities and human rights; therefore, the retention of people in the region can only be attained when citizens believe they can achieve personal and economic success at home. The achievement of countries such as Ireland in reversing the migration trend is evidence that it is possible to turn around the trend of outward migration and, in turn, benefit from inward migration.

The challenge for countries in Latin American and the Caribbean remains how to realize robust economic growth, create a hospitable environment for their citizens, improve human rights, facilitate access to capital and thereby reduce the outward flow of their citizens. If these structures are not created, the yearning to migrate will remain unaffected by the current global crisis, as persons will continue to look outward for greater economic and social opportunities. The desire to migrate will continue to fuel remittances to the region. And, remittances are still impor- tant for many economies as migrants will continue to support their many relatives and friends.”

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