The right to education for migrants in Latin America

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The decision to migrate to another country follows complex reflexive processes

International migration is a phenomenon always experienced by various human groups and in all latitudes. Still, its motivations are so diverse that they may range from entirely voluntary to fully forced decisions. In this context, the first ("voluntary") occur under conditions of stability and dynamics that do not involve situations compatible with humanitarian crises. In contrast, forced migration happens under the imperative need to leave one's country of origin to seek security and better opportunities and to safeguard subsistence. In other words, we could say that the decision to migrate across borders is the consequence of complex reflexive processes (associated with real conditions) strongly related to the weighing up of the risks of staying rather than embarking on an uncertain journey in the hope of a better future.

Today, Latin America is experiencing a dizzying increase in international migration within our region

Thus, despite critical situations in which people who feel identified with their country (with a personal or family life plan) decide to leave forcibly, it's possible to find thoughts of hope, optimism, and positivity. Consequently, it is possible to see how, behind the pain, there are future-oriented, healthy imaginaries, dreams, and longings for a better future.

Against this backdrop, Latin America is witnessing a dramatic increase in international migration within the region. This is due mainly to the collapse of democratic systems and their restrictive measures on individual freedoms, the corruption of the groups in power, and the imminent deterioration (failure) of economic activity. In particular, the figures have increased considerably in the last five years. For example, the Inter-agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (M4V, 2022) reported 5,087,495 Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR, 2022) says that the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) amounts to over 800,000 people. In the face of these figures, we are probably dealing with a new diaspora, where the need is such that people leave and cross nearby countries by walking ("on foot").

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Migratory flows in the region have focused mainly on authoritarian-dictatorial regimes

As a paradox, international organizations and NGOs - theoretically interested in these migration issues - refrain from mentioning the political and social causes of international migration in the region and merely point out that populations are forcibly displaced due to the economic crisis and violence by urban gangs, among other conditions. In this way, it is ignored that the common denominator (at present) that triggered mass migration in the region is the presence of regimes that - once in power - attacked the democratic system, individual freedoms, and economic competitiveness. A clear example is that the migratory flow has focused mainly on authoritarian dictatorial regimes such as Venezuela (almost 5 million have already left the country), Nicaragua (over 10% of the population lives outside the country), and Cuba. In the latter country, the US Customs and Border Protection reported that only in March of this year, more than 30,000 Cuban citizens crossed the southern border of Mexico (using Nicaragua as a passageway) with the US. Likewise, this office registered that 155,000 entered US territory irregularly between October 2021 and April this year.

These circumstances led Ricardo Mora-Téllez, a professor at Princeton University, to predict migration in the coming years if the situation in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras does not improve substantially. In his opinion, there are currently 15,431,346 people of migratory age in these three countries, and he considers the Rule of Law to be one of the leading causes of the crisis in the so-called Central American Northern Triangle (Wilson Center).


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Migration and basic education

Such migration events challenge the response capacity of the different countries to unrestrictedly guarantee the exercise of individual rights and freedoms that make it possible for migrants to have a decent life consistent with human development. Nevertheless, this praiseworthy claim will only be potential to the extent expected if states also undertake to facilitate timely access to education at any level.

Accordingly, this implies recognizing basic education as a right for all migrant minors, regardless of their parent's situation. Thus, it would be expected that States would be obliged to provide the necessary vacancies; simplify the procedures for enrolment; develop better legal frameworks to address the migration issue; and sanction any barrier that prevents children from accessing schools. Furthermore, education systems are expected to be as empathetic as possible toward migrants, who should be considered subjects with full rights. At the same time, countries are urged to intensify their efforts to identify, prevent and condemn all disqualifying manifestations such as stigmatization, prejudice, and segregation in all its forms. Some international organizations (UNICEF, UNESCO, and the IOM, among others) and ministries of education have warned about discriminatory situations against migrants.

Given the recent (and growing) predominance of women in migration (especially Venezuelan and Central American), such efforts are more than urgent. Thousands of women, often accompanied by their underage children, seek to cross their country's borders in untenable conditions, and are therefore exposed to greater vulnerability (such as kidnapping, rape, exploitation, and poverty). For this reason, it is critical to prevent the perpetuation of gender inequalities, disparities, and vulnerabilities in the receiving countries with governments aligned with the bloc known as the Sao Paulo Forum. In this regard, intersectoral efforts will be required to offer more significant attention to migrant women and their minor children.

What about higher education?

We must also understand the need for technological and university education for young people and adults who aspire to access higher education after leaving their respective countries. Hence, this is a legitimate claim that would also positively impact the development of the receiving country.

Not all countries in the region recognize higher education as a right. Fortunately, many Latin American countries (such as Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador) have constitutional frameworks that guarantee free higher education in public universities. The same applies to public universities with minimal tuition fees, as in Brazil. In Colombia, they recently took an important step from the Brazilian model (low costs) to free education, providing free education to more than 720,000 students from the lowest socio-economic sectors in a single semester (Colombian Ministry of National Education, 2022). Hopefully, these recent measures will include migrants seeking access to university studies. Moreover, in addition to free access to public universities, Argentina has managed to maintain free access (no exams) for Argentines and migrants to public universities.

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Against this background, and as in basic education, it is expected that immigrants would be guaranteed the right to study at a public university or college under at least the same conditions as those offered to host country citizens. Indeed, some political forces in the region argue for different requirements for migrants so that they pay to study at free public universities. Such proposals are possibly since there are limited places available, and migrants could increase competition for access to this academic level. Also, there is talk about foreigners studying with public funds destined for nationals. It is to be hoped that these measures will not succeed!

Migrants' right to education should include accessing government scholarships to study at private universities (undergraduate and postgraduate). This right should be defended by developing initiatives to ensure the non-exclusion of those who lack academic documents. To this end, education systems (at all levels) would need to create and establish specialized units capable of empathetically understanding, providing information, and granting temporary dispensations regarding the documents required to formalize enrolment.

Finally, it is considered necessary to develop streamlined, dynamic, and non-bureaucratic procedures for migrants (and citizens themselves) to access higher education institutions as free students. Many university laws in the region enshrine this concept (free students), but excessive administrative regulations often discourage those interested in attending universities under this system.


In most regions, developing relevant regulations to safeguard equal access to basic and higher education for migrants is a priority. This would necessarily require explicit recognition of their unrestricted education rights without distinction. In addition, this right would not end with access but would also address the protection of the dignity of these students through the prevention and eradication of all forms of stigmatization, discrimination, exclusion, or segregation.

For this to happen, and as far as basic education is concerned, states must fulfill their obligation to guarantee universal access to early childhood, elementary, and high school education for all migrant minors. The same mandate would apply to parents and caregivers, whom the government must provide with all the necessary facilities to comply with their duty to enroll their children in school.

In terms of higher education, guaranteeing access for migrants would make a vital contribution to their human growth and development and contribute to the social level by providing opportunities to acquire the necessary skills for skilled work.

On a final note, the education system (at all levels) must be conceived as the right way to guarantee adequate inclusion, cultural integration, and dignified participation in the social life of the host country.

Ivan Montes

About the author

Iván Montes is an educational psychologist and Doctor (PhD) from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He has worked as a consultant for national and international organisations such as UNICEF, the World Bank, DANIDA of Denmark, LASPAU of the USA, the National Education Council and the Group of Analysis for Development (GRADE). He is a professor in the Department of Education at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and President of the Academy of Educational and Social Studies (ACEES)