Migration Governance in Uruguay: An “Adaptive” Approach or Something More?

A- A A+

By Simca Simpson Lapp


At the beginning of November, Uruguay hosted the South American Conference on Migration (SACM). The Conference is the principal forum for consultation and non-binding governmental dialogue on migration in the region. Uruguay’s pro tempore presidency provides an apt context for reflection on the development of its own policy framework for immigrant inclusion and integration in recent years. IOM Deputy Director Laura Thompson recently described this policy trajectory as one “that has adapted” to changing migration flows. But, more specifically, Uruguay’s process of policy adaptation has involved both the development of a comprehensive rights-based legal framework, and a somewhat piecemeal approach to its implementation.

Uruguay has a reputation for progressive politics in a number of areas, from its internationally-lauded law guaranteeing labour rights for domestic workers (2006) to the legalization of cannabis (2013). However, its migrant rights legislation has until now garnered little attention on the international stage. The country received significant flows of European migrants in the first half of the 1900s, but maintained a negative net migration rate during much of the second half of the century. In the past decade, its migratory context has nevertheless undergone a series of normative and substantive transformations. The current framework governing migrant rights in the country is compromised mainly of the 2008 Migration Law (18.250) and the 2014 Permanent Resident Law (19.254), which brought Uruguayan law into accord with a number of international treaties and regional policy aims.

This framework was constructed in reaction to several significant trends, including: a) a regional paradigm change in migration governance that led many states to overhaul restrictive migration decrees in favour of rights-based migration laws; b) the advancement of a MERCOSUR free-movement agenda; and c) a partial reversal of decades-long emigration flows coupled with substantial increases in immigration in recent years. Changes in Uruguay’s net migration balance are considered to have principally been a result of the economic recovery following the country’s 2002 banking crisis. However, an international reputation for “vanguard” policies may have played a role in making the country of under 3.5 million a desirable destination for intra-regional migrants. These policies reflect the consolidation of social and economic rights under the successive Frente Amplio (FA) presidencies of Tabaré Vázquez and José “Pepe” Mujica since 2005.

Recent migration trends have included both more historically-salient flows from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, as well as newer flows from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Citizens of all except the last three states have rights to permanent residence in Uruguay, given their membership or associated state status in Mercosur. Furthermore, although Venezuela was suspended indefinitely from the sub-regional trade bloc in August 2017, a visa requirement has not been imposed on Venezuelan nationals and applications for permanent residency continue to be processed.

On the whole, the Uruguayan state’s response to these broad transformations has been rights-based rhetoric and legal guarantees based on such principles as equality and non-discrimination, with a piecemeal approach to rights implementation. The granting of permanent rather than temporary residency to MERCOSUR migrants upon arrival in Uruguay is one legal guarantee that exemplifies this dynamic. At SACM 2017, the approach was recognized as “exemplary”. However, there have been gaps between the “rapid” processes once advertised on government websites and delays of up to a year in securing appointments to ultimately process permanent residency applications. Although there is some evidence that these outcomes are improving, they are broadly indicative of implementation gaps in the overall process of providing substantive rights guarantees.

The case of non-Mercosur Dominican migrants also demonstrates the adaptability of immigration policies but also gaps in the fulfillment of migrants’ broader social rights. Uruguay imposed visa requirement for citizens of the Dominican Republic in 2014 following the arrival of up to a few thousand migrants, some of whom were victims of human trafficking. At the municipal level in Montevideo, access to decent housing for these and other recent migrants has been a significant concern. Many begin their stay in unregulated pensiones (hostels) near the city centre in very precarious conditions. Others were left awaiting assistance from the Ministry of Housing after their informal settlement on the outskirts of the Capital was uprooted by the Intendencia (City Government).

Another example of ad hoc migration governance was Mujica’s humanitarian bid to receive a number of former detainees upon their release from Guantanamo Bay in 2014. Despite the hopes of assisting and promoting the integration of this group of migrants, the lack of a substantive infrastructure for migrant services and integration and the purported denial of family reunification requests helped frustrate an already complex initiative.

As these cases demonstrate, some recent migrants who have come in pursuit of the “Uruguayan dream” have found an infrastructure of inclusion that is still very much “under construction”. Migration governance in Uruguay is both an example of the capacity of the state to adapt to changing dynamics, and indicative of the extent of the capacity building required to implement a comprehensive migrant rights framework.

These national developments play out in a regional context in which migration governance has been described as being “in transition” and national conditions may trump other factors in determining policy implementation. Nonetheless, the SACM documents continue to employ rights-based language in addition to emphasizing the provision of “regular” migration channels. Thus, whether or not immigration flows to Uruguay continue at the same rate in the coming years, the Uruguayan experience may provide lessons for how institutions can adapt to bring migrant rights from legal norms into everyday realities. The establishment of a National Migration Council in 2008, with representatives across various government ministries, has been one of the noteworthy developments in this process. In fact, one of the central lessons may be that adaptability alone will not suffice to fulfill the rights of migrants. Looking forward, the true test of effective governance in this changing migration context might prove to be establishing and extending a proactive approach and working across areas of rights practice.


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.


About the author

Simca Simpson Lapp is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She has undertaken fieldwork in Montevideo and Buenos Aires for her doctoral project on “Realizing Domestic Workers’ Rights from Institutionalization to Implementation: The Role of Labour, Care and Migration Rights Regimes in Argentina and Uruguay”.

@Simca Simpson