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Argentina's Economic Woes Spur Emigration
By Maia Jachimowicz
Migration Policy Institute
Argentina is witnessing an enormous increase in emigration, with Spain, Italy, the United States, and Israel making up the main destinations, according to the country's National Migration Directorate. Analysts place the lion's share of the blame for increased emigration on the country's faltering economy.
According to National Migration Directorate estimates, in the past two and a half years Argentina has witnessed an exodus of 255,000 people, or roughly six times the total number of emigrants in the period 1993-2000.
A poll of Latin Americans conducted last year by the British firm MORI placed Argentina third in a "ranking of Latin American emigration." Thirty percent of those polled indicated a strong desire to emigrate, trailing only Nicaragua (34 percent) and Columbia (32 percent). The most desired destinations of those polled were Spain and Italy.
The large numbers of Argentines who wish to move abroad are mainly motivated by the country's recent economic, political, and social instability, say analysts. The country is now confronting the largest recession in its history. In the past two years, Argentina has defaulted on $141 billion in foreign debt, unemployment has risen to 21.5 percent, and an estimated 55 percent of the population of 37 million has fallen below the poverty line. The average industrial wage fell by 7.9 percent from 2001 to 2002, and in the past four years, the homeless population has doubled.
For many, these statistics are startling. Argentina has always been hailed as the "jewel" of Latin America, characterized by an abundance of natural resources, as well as a large and highly educated population. For most of Argentina's history, it has actually been an immigration magnet, drawing its largest inflows from European countries such as Italy and Spain.
However, the old realities have been changed by a series of recent events, including the December 2001 resignation of then president Fernando de la Rua following the deaths of dozens of people in protests over economic hardships. According to the MORI poll, many Argentines have grown weary of government corruption, and others cannot afford to wait an indeterminable amount of time until economic conditions improve. At the same time, Argentines seem to have learned a lesson from their Latin American neighbors: emigration can provide relief and, in many cases, improve one's standard of living.
An estimated 255,000 nationals have emigrated in the past two and a half years, according to the National Migration Directorate. Although emigration from Argentina has been on the rise since the early 1990s, a sharp upward spike of this type is uncharacteristic for the country. Only during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which saw many students, intellectuals, artists, and left-wing activists flee brutal oppression, did Argentina previously see such significant emigration.
Previous outflows from Argentina, although small in comparison to current levels, have been directed primarily towards industrialized countries. Today, this trend continues. Large numbers of Argentines are heading for Spain or Italy, where many can claim citizenship thanks to ancestral ties. Although both countries are developing more restrictive immigration policies, bringing them more in line with the rules of fellow European Union states, past relations encourage Spaniards and Italians alike to welcome Argentine immigrants. Generally speaking, Argentines are seen as "preferred" immigrants for integration into these two countries due to their high skill levels, similar cultures and, in the case of Spain, common language.
The US has a large and relatively new Argentine immigrant community in Miami, which has become a prime destination for newcomers. Although small in comparison to more established Latin American communities in the region, these Argentines – over 21,000 people – have created a close-knit community. The various visa categories in the US have seen a rise in applications from Argentina in recent years. However, more restrictive immigration policies resulting from the September 11 terrorist attacks have affected Argentine immigration to the United States. In 2002, Argentina was removed from the US Visa Waiver Program. Argentines wanting to enter the US must now secure a visa while still in their home country. Despite these changes, however, immigration from Argentina to the US continues to grow.
Immigration from Argentina to Israel has risen dramatically in the past two years. Argentina has the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, at approximately 200,000 people, all of whom have the right to Israeli citizenship upon immigrating to the country. Argentines are lured to Israel by common ancestral ties, a welcoming attitude, and guaranteed financial aid that is extended to all immigrants. Israel has even created a special benefits package, including $20,000 in government assistance to purchase housing, for all immigrants fleeing Argentina's economic crisis.
In addition to the more traditional immigration flows, large numbers of Argentines have begun seeking residence in more distant countries. Many are now applying for the skill-based aspect of Canada's visa program, which is perceived to afford good opportunities to Argentina's well-educated emigrants. Other citizens have applied for permanent or temporary visas in countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Argentine communities in these countries are small, so governments and communities alike have yet to develop special policies or attitudes in response to this immigrant group.
Recent developments, both political and economic, may help curb Argentine emigration in the next few years. The May 2003 swearing-in of Nestor Kirchner made him the first elected president to hold office since de la Rua's 2001 resignation, and brought an end to a succession of "interim" presidents. Kirchner's efforts to oust corrupt military, government, and judicial branch officials have won him wide support. If his anti-corruption campaign leads to greater political stability, Argentines may find staying home more bearable.
The latest economic indicators suggest that the economy is improving, which may prove to be yet another incentive for many to remain in Argentina. The country's GDP grew by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of this year and the consumer price index declined by 0.4 percent in May, marking the first month-to-month decline in the index since early 2002. It may be too soon to say that Argentina is bucking its latest recession, but many analysts are hopeful.
How these signs of political and economic stability will affect future migration trends is unclear. Flows could continue to rise in fear of another economic collapse or fall to pre-recession levels amid hopes of a rebound. They could also plateau near their current level as immigration to more developed countries becomes an attractive option, rather than an economic necessity, for Argentines. What can be said, however, is that as public support for the government rises and economic conditions improve, the urge to emigrate – a feeling that has overwhelmed Argentina in the past two years – may soon pass.
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