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Is Argentina experiencing an emigration wave?

More and more Argentines are seeing their futures abroad as the country deals with deep economic crisis and spiraling inflation.

(CN) — Argentina entered the 20th century as a global economic power with its GDP per capita ranked among the world’s top ten, outperforming France and Germany. While millions of immigrants were passing the Statue of Liberty in search of a better life, millions of others were arriving at the port of Buenos Aires.

The South American country was home to the largest group of immigrants in the world after the U.S., who filled the vast fertile grasslands of the Pampas that powered its economic growth. Six million people — mostly Italian and Spanish — arrived and pushed up the foreign-born population to 30%, double the density of the U.S. In the capital of Buenos Aires, foreigners even outnumbered the domestic population.

Today, among turbulent migration waves, thousands of Argentines are leaving their homeland, many returning to their ancestral origins in Europe, amidst a worsening economy and spiraling inflation.

Argentina is in the middle of a major crisis, punctuated by a three-decade high inflation rate of 64%, vanishing foreign reserves and debilitating debt that includes the weight of a $57 billion loan package from the IMF — the largest in the lender’s history.

With wages wiped out by inflation, those who can buy dollars on the black market. Many can no longer see their future in Argentina and are deciding to leave the country.

Melisa Gigena is a classroom teacher in her early 30s who left Argentina for Denmark with a friend in early 2018. Watching the crisis unfold from Europe, the comparisons in quality of life became clear for Gigena. 

“After living for some time in Denmark, we realized that our quality of life in Buenos Aires was not as good as we thought,” she said. “We couldn’t walk alone at night even though we lived in a nice area. We had to wait weeks for supermarket offers to buy some of the things we liked. We couldn’t afford to live alone nor save more than 100 dollars a month unless we cut other costs. And we couldn’t plan or budget for food because there were always increases in prices.”

In Denmark, Gigena worked as a cleaner as it was the easiest way to obtain a work visa. “As a cleaner, we managed to save 700 euros a month. There were no price increases, we could walk alone anywhere, and there were many job opportunities.”

In a recent survey, 65.4% of Argentines said that if they were able to leave the country they would. Among those aged 25 and under, it reaches 85.1%.

Historical data on Argentine emigration doesn’t exist although the government recently started to document these figures. What we know is that during the peak pandemic period between September 2020 and October 2021, around 50,000 Argentines stated that they were leaving to move to another country.

“This is a very important figure, an average of 3,500 per month, a number comparable to what happened in 2003,” said Lucas Luchilo, a professor of history specializing in migration, in an interview with Clarín, a national newspaper.

The country’s last major economic crisis of 1998-2002 culminated in sharp economic contraction, foreign debt default and broad unemployment, provoking mass protest and rioting. It was the last time Argentina saw a wave of emigration.

“According to United Nations statistics, around 2010, about 940,000 Argentines lived abroad,” said Luchilo. “At present, that figure can be estimated at around 1.1 million. The percentage of Argentines abroad is around 2.5%, lower than the world average but with remarkable growth in the last decades."

With pandemic-related travel restrictions now lifted, the level of emigration could begin to accelerate.

“There are signs that a significant number of Argentines are moving from the general idea of leaving the country to the concrete decision to do so,” added Luchilo, a trend that “raises alarm bells.”

Between the idea of moving and packing suitcases, there is a strong indicator to determine how many people are gathering the required documentation to apply for citizenship of another country.

Almost 80% of Argentines can trace part of their ancestry back to Europe, allowing them to apply for citizenship if they can present the right paperwork. Demand is high and is stretching waiting times to between 1-2 years.

Gigena started the process of obtaining her Italian citizenship in 2017. After two years of waiting, and with her work visa expiring in Europe, she had to return to Argentina.

“I got the citizenship in Dec. 2019 and had an appointment for my passport in Mar. 2020, but because of the pandemic, they canceled it," said Gigena. “After almost half a year later, because I was planning to settle in Denmark, my case was considered an emergency and finally they gave me my passport the same day as my appointment. I traveled to Denmark three days later.”

According to the National Electoral Chamber, the number of requests for a specific certification that demonstrates eligibility for obtaining citizenship of another country has soared. Last year, the federal government office received 55,000 requests, the highest on record, surpassing the amount during the country’s previous economic crisis of 1999-2002.

Beneath these official figures are even more Argentines looking at their options, asking family members for birth certificates of their Italian or Spanish ancestors in order to apply for citizenship — it’s a topic that trends on the streets and in cafes and homes.

The two most popular destinations for Argentines are Spain, with a community of around 320,000, and the U.S., around 220,000.

“The growth of emigration to the United States has not had major ups and downs,” noted Luchilo. “On the other hand, emigration to Spain and Europe has been more sensitive to economic cycles. Since the 2008 crisis, the number of Argentines in Spain decreased significantly hand in hand with rising unemployment. From 2015, when the crisis passed, the trend resumed from the first decade of the century, with an acceleration since 2018.”

Argentine immigration to Spain. National Institute of Statistics of Spain.

Among the emigrant population, Luchilo describes the increase of children under 10 years old leaving as “striking”, indicating that “there is an important outflow of families with young children.”

Marcelo Arias is in his 50s and lives in Buenos Aires with his partner and their two young girls.

“It’s really sad to say but unfortunately, we’re hoping to leave,” he said. “Our wish would be to have the chance to move from Argentina to Europe, where our daughters will have better opportunities.”

Many Argentines reach this conclusion reluctantly.

“Our country is wonderful, but the politics have created a society in which we no longer want to be a part of,” Arias added. “The bad policies of all governments and the lack of the rule of law, among other factors, have caused a large number of Argentines to want the same as us, to leave.”

As the country continues to suffer the effects of deep economic crisis, the pathway towards a better future within Argentina becomes even more inaccessible, leading many to change direction, which presents other obstacles.

“The current economy has us as prisoners,” said Arias, “because with our pension, we wouldn’t be able to live in any other country. We will see in the future if we can leave.”

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