Polar shifts: Immigration flows back into the Global South

The immigration influx in the Amazon reveals a thriving economy, far from the isolated forests of romantic imaginations.

People from neighbouring countries have been coming to the Brazilian Amazon for better opportunities for a long time, writes Manuela Picq [GALLO/GETTY]

Paris, France – Looking for work? Greece is beyond chaotic and the Arizona border-crossing is turning into a bridge to nowhere. Try the Brazilian Amazon instead. With thousands of workers coming in, including from Haiti, the region is becoming an immigration hotspot.

No more walled borders or perilous raft journeys among hungry sharks (and hungrier border patrols), but a so-far welcoming portal to one of the most prosperous economies in the world.

The immigration influx in the Amazon reveals a thriving economy, far from the isolated forests of romantic imaginations. As labour opportunities are beckoning in the global south, it also signals a reversal in immigration flows.

Where Haiti meets Bangladesh

After decades pouring onto to the shores of Miami, Haitians now travel the banks of Amazon rivers into Brazil looking for work. In Brasileia, where the state of Acre borders Bolivia, over 1,200 Haitians are awaiting visas. In Tabatinga, in the state of Amazonas at the triple border with Colombia and Peru, the government is unable to process visas fast enough for Haitians to move on toward larger cities, like Manaus and Sao Paulo.

Thousands of Haitians are arriving, and they are not alone. People from neighbouring countries have been coming to the Brazilian Amazon for better opportunities for a long time. Peruvians and Bolivians increasingly cross into Brazil, seeking work as well as social welfare benefits, whereas Colombians arrive escaping their own civil conflict.  

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The massive arrival of Haitians reveals that people are coming from afar too. Even Bangladeshis are showing up looking for work, betting on Brazil over Dubai to support families back in Dhaka.

Over 1,600 Haitians have been recently granted visas, and Minister of Justice Jose Eduardo Cardozo is in the process of normalising the legal status of about 4,000 Haitians already in the country with work visas valid for five years. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has promised R$1.3 million per year to help the state of Acre address the emerging needs of these new immigrants.

Cosmopolitan Amazon

Why is everybody coming to the distant lands of the Amazon? One migrant told a reporter that Brazilians were friendly, which may be true. More objectively, the Amazon has long been embedded in the world political economy, gaining momentum as Brazil’s economy grows.

The region was already cosmopolitan in the 17thcentury, when European powers fought imperial conflicts on its rivers, the Dutch and the French building forts, the British sending the North Amazon Company to establish plantations, and the Portuguese battling them all to retain its monopoly over commerce.

The rubber boom at the turn of the 20thcentury, which supplied the world with rubber and helped spur the industrial revolution, brought global magnates, a Parisian opera house, and some of the world first street lights to Manaus. Today, Tabatinga – where the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar once had a home – remains at the core of global drug trafficking routes.

The porosity of the Amazon’s borders make it a favourite point of entry for immigrants. The trip costs about US$3,000 from Haiti, including bus rides into the Dominican Republic, flights to Peru, and more bus rides before boating down the Amazon River. While the government is providing social assistance to immigrant populations, it has started coordinating multilateral strategies from Haiti to Peru to control coyote routes.

“Since Brazil surpassed the UK to become the sixth largest economy in the world, its economic prosperity has been widely touted.”

Further, current investments in the Amazon are fuelling labour demand. The federal government is developing an array of infrastructure projects, from roads to hydroelectric systems like the contested Belo Monte dam.

In Manaus, a soccer stadium is being built for the 2014 World Cup and real estate prices are on the rise – even provoking the violent eviction of communities from traditional habitat to clear land for luxury condominiums. The Amazon is modernising just like the rest of Brazil, attracting people from all over the world.

Eyes on Brazil

Since Brazil surpassed the United Kingdom to become the sixth largest economy in the world, its economic prosperity has been widely touted. Unemployment rates have plunged to decade-low levels despite the crisis, dropping to 4.7 per cent at the close of 2011 – the equivalent to full employment – while the US rate hovered near 9 per cent. Brazil’s Central Bank recorded an increase in foreign direct investment up from US $48bn in 2009 to US $64bn.

Social scientists concur that poverty has declined significantly, lifting 10 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty. Income inequality recently declined for the first time in decades, whereas the poverty rateshrank from 33 per cent to 10 per cent of the population between 2001 and 2009. With purchasing power is on the rise, those at the bottom of the economic ladder have gained access to consumer goods previously inaccessible.

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This context explains why people are moving to Brazil, notably many middle-class, qualified Americans and Europeans looking for – and landing – good jobs. Only three years ago, Brazilians were the largest group deported from the UK for illegal status. As of the first semester of 2011, the Ministry of Justice reports a 52.4 per cent increase in the number of foreigners with a permanent status, and the number of permanent visas issued increased 67 per cent since 2009.

Reversing global migration flows

Migration flows are shifting. As the “emerging” economies of the global south rapidly recover from the 2008 crisis and wealthy economies continue to stagnate, traditional immigration patterns are being re-routed. South-to-south immigration is booming, and the novelty is the steady influx of migration from north to south. While France is struggling with a job crisis, talented European youths are migrating to find jobs in Brazil.

The immigration influx in the Brazilian Amazon reflects the country’s expanding role in the global economy, a development that will oblige many to revise prevalent stereotypes of the region as a region of “empty spaces” without people and without a history, and therefore without politics. The Amazon has one of the longest histories of immigration of South America, and the current trend is but the latest reprise of the region’s complex, cosmopolitan history.

Furthermore, the migration of workers from Haiti and Bangladesh to the Brazilian Amazon signals a larger and more comprehensive reversal of traditional international migration flows.

While undocumented immigration to the US has tapered off since the 2008 crisis, reaching its lowest point in 40 years, Spain has facilitated the return of many Latin American immigrants back to their home-countries. New laws across Latin America, facilitating migration flows may be harbingers of a more far-reaching paradigm change with significant ramifications for the global economy.

Are we at the end of an era? Are we witnessing the emergence of a more globally and regionally integrated Latin America? Historically, changes in migration and immigration patterns frequently presage economic and social rearrangements on the global stage.

Could the supply of cheap labour, a source of vitality taken for granted and treated as inexhaustible in a global north concerned with building walls, dry up as labour increasingly circulates within the global south?

The question now is whether Brazil, and the global south at large, will be able to forge more humane, constructive policies toward undocumented immigration than the “criminalising” approaches of the northern countries. Perhaps, we are not merely witnessing a reversal of power in favour of the global south, but the early stages of a larger transformation in global politics.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.