In the last two decades, South America created a regional regime for human mobility that is regarded as the most developed one after that of the EU. It is characterised by progressive approaches to migration that include facilitated border crossings, equal social and economic rights and working conditions for migrants, non-criminalization of migration, and the enunciation of the "right to migrate". In this article, I will present a brief overview on the policies that South America’s three main regional organizations have adopted to liberalize the movement of regional citizens within the region. South America is characterised by the coexistence and overlap of many regional organizations. However, there are three main regional organizations that regulate human mobility: the Andean Community (Comunidad Andina, CAN), the Southern Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur, Mercosur) and the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, UNASUR). The latter one has been important with regard to establishing freedom of movement within the region until very recently. Yet, it has lost its importance in 2018 due to the withdrawal of the majority of its members that have, in the beginning of 2019, founded a new regional institution: the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America (Foro para el Progreso y Desarrollo del Sur, PROSUR). PROSUR's stance on migration has not yet been elaborated.
The Andean Community (CAN)
CAN’s members are Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. It was founded in 1969 following the European supranational model and was aimed at creating a common market, and – consequently – a free movement regime. As its name indicates, the CAN aims to be a ‘community’. However, CAN was weakened by economic crises and some members abandoning it. In practice this means that it is currently not much more than a free trade area.
The CAN was the first regional organization that regulated human mobility in South America. In the past, the CAN mostly focused on regulating migration for work reasons, creating ‘categories’ of workers but also providing basic rights such as non-discrimination, equal treatment of migrants and citizens and equal access to education, housing, health care and social security. In the early 2000s, it facilitated border crossings by creating the Andean Passport and preferential entrance lanes for Andean citizens at the airports of the member states. Citizens of CAN member countries were also allowed to travel within the region with their national ID cards and without the requirement of obtaining a visa. It also established ‘binational centres of attention at the border’ (Centros Binacionales de Atención en Frontera, known as CEBAF). These are facilities which are managed jointly by the authorities of the bordering member states. They cooperate with regard to the control of border crossings and provide information and help to people crossing the border or transporting goods from one country to another.
In the early 2000s, the CAN issued a project for an Andean Migratory Statute (Estatuto Migratorio Andino) that would establish the free movement of persons as a right and would consequently eliminate border controls between member states, like in the Schengen area.
The Statute was approved by the Andean Parliament in 2015, but its final approval by the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, which would enforce it, is still pending.
The Southern Common Market (Mercosur)
Mercosur was created in 1991 and its members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela's membership has been temporarily suspended. The rest of the South American States are associated members. Its original aim was to promote regional integration through political, social and economic cooperation. In this context, a common market was to be established, but this objective was reduced to a customs union in 1994. In the 1990s, Mercosur's attempts to regulate mobility within the region mostly focused on labour migration. As a result, towards the end of the 1990s it created a transference mechanism for pensions called the Multilateral Social Security Agreement (Acuerdo Multilateral de Seguridad Social) . According to this policy, member states' citizens who have worked in another member state for several years can have their pension transferred to their regional country of residence when at retirement age. During the first decade of its existence, Mercosur also adopted the Socio Labour Declaration that provides equal rights for migrant workers and their families and guarantees non-discrimination, and equal treatment. Mercosur, similar to the CAN, created preferential lanes at airports for Mercosur citizens and integrated border controls, which means that the officials of both bordering countries control people and goods at the border jointly. Mercosur also allowed its citizens to travel within the region with their national IDs instead of requiring them to apply for a passport and/or visa.
Furthermore, it adopted a special document for residents in border areas that created a fast track for these people at border checkpoints to enable them to move rapidly between countries. Towards the end of 2002, Mercosur significantly improved the rights of migrants and further liberalized their movement within the region. The Residence Agreement for Nationals of the Member States of Mercosur and Associated States (RAM) (Acuerdo sobre Residencia para nacionales de los Estados Partes del Mercosur, Bolivia y Chile) is a milestone with regard to free movement within the region. It introduced a simplified process through which regional migrants can acquire a two-year temporary residence permit in another Mercosur member state that, after providing a proof of economic income, can be converted into a permanent residence permit after a two-year stay. The importance of the agreement relies on several dimensions: Nationality (of a country that has adopted the RAM) is the main requirement for obtaining a (temporary) legal residence, not the economic or labour condition of the migrant. Thereby, the agreement aims to prevent South Americans from having an irregular migratory status in the region. It does so by eliminating sanctions and penalty fees that migrants might have to pay in case they have an irregular status and want to obtain a legal one. The processes and documents that are required for obtaining a residence permit are simplified and harmonized: regional citizens that apply for a residence permit only have to show their national ID and a clean criminal record. The RAM also established meaningful rights such as the right to equal treatment with citizens of the host country, the right to family reunion and the right to transfer remittances. Crucial for the scope of the RAM is that the majority of South American countries have adopted it. It was originally signed by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile. Peru and Ecuador joined it in 2011 and Colombia joined in 2012. Venezuela has not signed it yet. The fact that most states in the region adopted the RAM positioned Mercosur as the leading regional organisation with regard to intraregional migration management. The South American Conference on Migration/Conferencia Sudamericana sobre Migraciones (SACM), an annual regional consultative process where all the South American countries coordinate general positions and strategies on migration, picked up on the progressive language and regulations of the RAM and of other Mercosur legislation. The SACM’s declarations enunciated the existence of a ‘human right to migrate’, called for the non-criminalisation of migration, for regularisation and not deportation as a solution to irregularity and for ‘universal’ rights for migrants, independent of their resident status. These positions were defended by South American countries in international forums, such as in the UN during the negotiations for the Global Compact on Migration in 2018.
In the early 2010s, Mercosur tried to deepen regional integration in the migration area by adopting an "Action Plan", striving to establish a supranational citizenship by 2021. However, in practice, there has not been much progress regarding the implementation of this plan yet.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)
The UNASUR was created in 2008 by twelve South American States and, contrary to the economic foci of Mercosur and the Andean Community, it intended to be mainly a political forum aimed at solving disputes and fostering dialogue and cooperation among the Member States. One of its main objectives, as stated in its Constitutive Treaty, is “the consolidation of a South American identity through the progressive recognition of rights to nationals of a Member State resident in any of the other Member States, in order to achieve a South American citizenship” (art. 3.i). The UNASUR thus intended to harmonize the rights established by the CAN and the Mercosur for citizens of South American states and to create a macro-regional framework by which South American citizens would have the right to free movement, including equal access to work, social security, healthcare, justice, education, housing and welfare. However, this very ambitious project was suspended after the UNASUR entered into a deep crisis in 2018. Seven of its member states suspended their membership, whereby the UNASUR has lost its significance for regional integration. Instead, in January 2019, eight South American countries founded a new regional institution named PROSUR, which also reflects the shift in most of the South American countries from left-wing political regimes (that once founded UNASUR) towards conservative governments. If PROSUR proceeds on the rights-based approach or if it adopts a more restrictive stance on migration remains to be seen.
As a result of all these policies, nowadays (most) South Americans may travel to another country in the region with their national ID (instead of having to obtain passports and visa), and they may reside freely in other South American countries for two years, without providing proofs of income. There are also some policies that regulate the transfer of pensions for workers after retirement. Another characteristic feature of the South American freedom of movement regime is the facilitation of border crossings and policies especially aimed at integrating border areas. In this part of the world, people have always moved in large numbers across borders for economic and education reasons. Therefore, the integration of bordering areas has always been crucial. Finally, yet importantly, South American freedom of movement is characterised by the provision of a wide set of rights, including equal treatment, family reunion and the right to send remittances. The existence of such a progressive approach does not mean that many of these provisions are not violated or that there are no problems in implementation. However, the fact that in times where calls for tighter border controls and restrictions on immigration are widespread a group of countries (that includes Brazil, a country that is among the top ten largest economies in the world) have such an open approach to regional migration is quite remarkable.