The Challenge of a Huge Latin American Migration Surge is Coming. So is the Opportunity | Opinion

By the end of 2019, more than 40 million people from Latin America and the Caribbean will be living outside their countries of birth according to estimates from the United Nations, comprising a rapidly rising share of the world's migrant population.

While migrants entering Europe and North America grab most of the attention, millions of Latin Americans are making shorter journeys to neighboring nations including Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Guyana, Panama, Costa Rica, Chile and Trindad and Tobago.

The numbers are stunning, especially in Venezuela, whose unprecedented collapse has spurred some 4.5 million people to leave since 2015. Nearly 80 percent of those migrants remain in Latin America and the Caribbean. This week in Brussels the international community gathered to debate measures for addressing the Venezuelan exodus—which the U.N. warns could rise to almost 5.4 million by the end of this year—pledging a fresh sum of EUR150 million to address the crisis.

Mass migration is hardly new in the Americas. Over the past century, tens of millions of European and Asian immigrants have found security and jobs in the New World, shaping the cultural, economic and political development of virtually every country in the Hemisphere.

But while earlier waves of immigrants arrived gradually through large ports or capital cities, the new, intra-regional flows often come in surges and are initially concentrated in remote border areas. Whether they are classified as migrants or refugees, most have been compelled to leave out of desperation and with little planning.

Consider the experience of Cúcuta, a city on Colombia's side of the Venezuelan border. By the end of 2018, Cúcuta was hosting Venezuelan migrants equivalent to 16 percent of its population. The influx has overwhelmed the city's public services. Hospitals and public schools are struggling to accommodate the surge, and the job market has been flooded by informal workers, many of whom sleep in the streets at night.

Cúcuta is an extreme example of a crisis that is rapidly building elsewhere. In recent years, poverty, natural disasters, droughts and crime have prompted more than 100,000 Haitians to emigrate to Chile, some 150,000 Nicaraguans to Costa Rica, and more than 200,000 Paraguayans to Argentina, to cite just a few examples.

The evidence and our experience indicate that these displacements are unlikely to be short-lived, as the conditions that would justify a return will be slow to materialize.

We also expect such movements to increase. The UN estimates that eight Latin American and the Caribbean countries—Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Guyana—rank among the top 25 nations most at risk for natural disasters.

By 2050, more than 200 million people worldwide will have left their countries because of climate events, according to the U.N.

Demographic trends will also fuel migration, as people from countries with high fertility rates and underemployment move to nations with older populations and labor shortages. Countries like Bolivia, Guatemala and Haiti have significantly higher fertility rates (around 2.9 births per woman) than countries like Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil (under 1.8 births per woman.)

To gauge the scope of the disparities, consider the experiences of two of the Hemisphere's top cities.

Toronto, with a per capita GDP of $45,000, is home to nearly six million people, almost half of whom are foreign born. Lima has nearly 9 million people, but its per capita GDP is just $15,000, and until recently only 1 percent of its population was foreign born. And yet Lima is struggling to integrate more than 800,000 Venezuelans who have arrived since 2016.

Like its neighbors, Peru is determined to stay ahead of this challenge. But the costs are daunting.

Colombia's government estimates it will need $1.4 billion, or 0.4 percent of its GDP, to integrate migrants. Ecuador believes it will require $550 million annually until 2021. And even those numbers could fall short. When Lebanon faced surging Syrian immigration earlier this decade, officials estimated it would cost 5.5 percent of GDP to return public services to pre-migration levels.

Apart from emergency assistance, we know that authorities need public policies, infrastructure and services to help fully integrate new arrivals and ensure they fuel growth instead of becoming a burden.

In response to requests from our member governments, the IDB recently launched a $100 million grant fund that, combined with loans and grants from donor nations, will aim to provide up to $1 billion to help fund services ranging from digital identity management to housing, healthcare, education, job training and clean water and sanitation in communities receiving large numbers of immigrants.

Colombia and Ecuador have already applied to the fund for help in dealing the surge in Venezuelan migrants. Costa Rica and Belize have requested funds to better manage ongoing migration from Central American countries. A growing number of local and multinational companies active in the region have also pledged to contribute to these efforts.

This is an important first step, but much greater international attention and assistance is needed to meet the scale of the challenge and help prevent the frustration and xenophobia that often surface the in the wake of immigration surges. Latin America and Caribbean nations have historically been welcoming of immigrants, partly because governments know that over time, well-managed immigration encourages entrepreneurship, boosts exports, and increases foreign direct investment.

These long-term economic benefits are too easily forgotten in today's highly polarized immigration debate. But if we support receiving countries to adapt to the new realities of intra-regional migration, we still have time to both preserve social stability and foster new sources of opportunity and growth for people across the Americas.

Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. David Miliband is CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

The Challenge of a Huge Latin American Migration Surge is Coming. So is the Opportunity | Opinion | Opinion