The impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America have been felt far and wide. Physical distancing and lockdown measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus have brought economies to the brink of collapse and negatively impacted people’s livelihoods, testing governments’ leadership, and exacerbating the structural inequalities that have historically affected the region.

By Marcia Vera Espinoza, Gisela P. Zapata, & Luciana Gandini

Migrant and refugee populations in Latin America have been one of the most affected by the pandemic. As part of an ongoing regional and interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring the impacts of COVID-19 and the associated governmental responses on migrants’ and refugees’ lives, we argue that the measures taken, particularly border closures and lockdown, have exacerbated the conditions of precarity and vulnerability experienced by many migrants in the region.

This is so, given their high rates of job informality and insecurity, overcrowded and precarious living conditions, and limited access to health services and social security, among others[i]. Thus, migrant and refugee populations are not only more vulnerable to the risks associated with the virus, but the governmental responses to the crisis have also deepened pre-existing inequalities and gaps between the migrant and national populations in terms of labour, housing and health rights.

In this context, the pandemic is reshaping – already changing – mobility dynamics in the region and producing new migration patterns with attendant drivers and consequences: a sort of ‘mobility in immobility’. In particular, the unprecedented context of border restrictions and pandemic mitigation measures, have provoked two distinct but interrelated contradictory processes: return and forced (im)mobility.

On the one hand, the exacerbation of migrants’ already precarious living conditions have led many to take extraordinary ‘bottom-up’ actions to guarantee their livelihoods, leading to mass returns – often by foot – to their crises-ridden countries of origin or re-emigration to other places, nationally or internationally.

On the other hand, the region has also witnessed reinforced patterns of involuntary/forced immobility propitiated by ‘top-down’ measures such as increasing express deportations – often without due process – and by the limitations on cross-border movements and the ability to seek international protection imposed by border closures.

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