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Recent Developments of Immigration and Emigration | Argentina |

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Recent Developments of Immigration and Emigration

Thomas Maier

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Since the founding of the republic in the early 19th century, Argentina has been a magnet for immigrants from neighboring countries. Their immigration did, however, challenge the dominant image of a society made up of European immigrants and their descendants. To date, non-European immigrants find themselves in a position of social marginality and relative exclusion.

Residents wait for the arrival of a procession that celebrates Paragua's patroness, "Our Lady of Caacupe", commonly called the "Blue Virgin", in a slum of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (© picture alliance / AP Photo)

Migration from Neighboring Countries

The phenomenon of immigration from neighboring territories is much older than the history of the Argentine nation state itself. Already during colonial times, labor migrants and merchants used the extensive fluvial system for their activities. Since the establishment of the republic in the early 19th century, Argentina has always been a magnet for people from surrounding countries, thanks to higher wages and relatively advanced industrial and agricultural systems with high demand for labor. But the presence of Latin American migrants only became an object of major public attention in the 1970s under military rule, mostly discussed as a "problem" of irregularity, social and racial cohesion, and a peril to the project of civilization and national development, with anti-immigration attitudes on the rise in the 1980s and 1990s. This problematization of the Latin American immigrant was accompanied by a greater visibility of these groups, both numerically and in public perception.

Not surprisingly, the number of foreigners diminished significantly after the Second World War, from 2.6 million in 1960 to 1.5 million in 2001 (see Figure 3). But the change within the stock of foreigners was not only a quantitative one: there was a slow but steady substitution of Europeans with people stemming from neighboring countries, mostly from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Chile. Within this group, Paraguayans and Bolivians presented the steadiest inflow. Whereas a more regional rural-rural movement, mostly in bordering regions, dominated until the 1970s, the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires subsequently became the dominant magnet: the census of 2001 revealed that 54 percent of migrants from neighboring countries were living in the mega city of Buenos Aires, compared to only 25 percent in 1960. Although their numbers, relative to the total population, increased only marginally in the last 30 years, from 2.7 percent in 1983 to 3.1 percent in 2011, it was the period from 1991 to 2001 that saw a major increase of these groups. The exceptionally high wages during this decade, guaranteed by the one to one convertibility of the Argentina peso to the US dollar, attracted hundreds of thousands of workers and their families. For example, between 1991 and 2001, the Bolivian community grew from 143,589 to 233,464, the Paraguayan from 250,450 to 325,046, and the Peruvian from 15,939 to 87,546 in the same period.

Figure 3: Percentage of foreign-born population in Argentina, 1869-2010 Source: INDEC, National Census 1869 to 2010. (© bpb)

Many of these immigrants work in sectors that imply low wages and precarious job security: manual work like construction, domestic services and manufacturing, but also agriculture, the garment sector, vegetable shops in urban settings and other areas of commerce. In these labor market segments, especially the Bolivian community has successfully created an ethnic infrastructure, formal and informal, helping thousands of individuals to secure jobs, and create spaces of sociability Bolivians living in Argentina make significant contributions to the Bolivian economy: research by the International Organization for Migration estimates that in 2012, they sent a total of 301 million US dollar to family members in Bolivia.

This "new migration", which, in fact, is a very old one, only hidden by the dominance of the transatlantic flow of people, posed a new set of issues for the project of national identity and ethnic cohesion. The dominance of the popular image of Argentina being made of Hijos de los barcos (sons of boats) that were successfully integrated within a national project of progress, left, at best, only marginal space for the arrivals from the immediate periphery. Additionally, attitudes of xenophobia, open and hidden forms of discrimination and sensibilities of cultural superiority abound in the country. Complex interplays of class, race, issues of security and delinquency, and cultural otherness still place Bolivians and other immigrants from Latin America in a position of marginality and relative exclusion.

Other Recent Immigration

Another recent phenomenon is the rising presence of (mostly west-)African labor migrants and refugees, mainly Senegalese, Ghanaians and Nigerians in the bigger cities of the country, especially in Buenos Aires. The tightening of the border regime in Europe over the last decades, the remarkable economic growth in Argentina, and comparatively permissive immigration policies, helped redirecting parts of African migration to Argentina. As with recent Immigration of non-Europeans, African migrants face prejudices and serious difficulties in entering the formal job market. The Argentine state and charities are offering language programs, temporary and renewable work permits, and a basic infrastructure in health care. The Centro para el Refugiado y Migrante Africano, created in 2010, provides information and help for young African refugees. African migration is often depicted as a novelty for the country. However, a look back in time shows the numerically important presence of people with African origin in the region. The census of 1810 for the city of Buenos Aires recorded 9,615 blacks out of a population of 32,558, with the vast majority of those black Porteños being victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Additionally, the census of 2010 revealed that 149,493 residents of the republic identified themselves as Afro-descendants. The presence of Africans and Afro-Argentines might serve as a reminder that the history of migration in Argentina is more complex than the simple and still dominant narrative of a country of European immigration is suggesting. This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile Argentina.

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Thomas Maier is currently researching his PhD at the Institute of the Americas, University College London. His main focus of research is the history of labor and the welfare state in the Americas, particularly Argentina and the Southern Cone. Email: E-Mail Link: