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PARAGUAY: Migrants Mainly Young Undocumented Guarani-Speakers

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Dec 3 2009 (IPS) - Freddy Garcete, a 50-year-old painter who works in the construction industry, travelled to Spain in search of better wages two years ago, becoming one of the 500,000 Paraguayans forced to seek work abroad because of the conditions at home.

But the impact of migration was double in the case of the Garcete family. Freddy’s wife Rosa María had already left for Spain before her husband. Their aim was to pay off a mortgage that was a heavy burden for the family, and pay for the education of their two daughters.

But the early effects in Spain of the global economic crisis made it impossible for Garcete to land a steady job in the construction industry. “Just after I left, my dad died, and I had to come home,” he told IPS. “But the fact that I had no steady work in Spain made me decide to stay in my country, mainly to be close to my daughters.”

The impact of migration in this landlocked South American country of 6.3 million people was the focus of a report released this week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), produced in conjunction with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), with support from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The human development 2009 report, titled “Ampliando Horizontes” (Broadening Horizons), says that of the 500,000 Paraguayans living abroad, more than 250,000 left the country in the last five years.

Argentina to the south is still the main destination, accounting for six out of 10 Paraguayan migrants, with Spain in second place – three out of 10 – while the United States and Brazil received fewer Paraguayan migrants in the last few years.

The study says that more than half of those who leave are between the ages of 15 and 24, countering the widespread impression here that most of those seeking work abroad are heads of households, generally over 30 years old.

More than three-quarters – 77 percent – of Paraguayans in Spain are undocumented migrants, which makes them especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

“We’re talking about more than 50,000 people in that situation (in Spain) as of January 2008: 18,000 men and over 35,000 women,” Jorge Méndez, the coordinator of the study, told IPS.

The report also says that at the time they left the country, 70 percent of the migrants only spoke Guaraní, which along with Spanish is an official language in Paraguay, and is spoken by 94 percent of the population.

Méndez pointed out that the language barrier is a major hurdle when it comes to finding work abroad.

With regard to educational level, Paraguayans who migrate to the United States or Spain have more years of schooling, generally up to secondary or tertiary studies. By contrast, most Paraguayans who seek work in Argentina or Brazil have just a primary school education.

The study also found that more than 182,000 of Paraguay’s 1.4 million households have at least one family member living abroad.

The provinces with the highest levels of migration are Central (the most populous) and San Pedro (the poorest), both of which are in the central part of the country, Alto Paraná in the southeast, which borders both Brazil and Argentina, and Caaguazú in the south.

Households in the capital, Asunción, receive the largest monthly cash transfers, although the income is not steady. In provinces like San Pedro, on the other hand, the amounts are smaller but more reliable.

“The largest amounts of remittances come from the United States and Spain,” said Méndez. On average, the cash transfers received per household in Asunción are around 460 dollars, compared to just over 120 dollars in San Pedro and about 200 dollars nationwide.

Annual remittances to Paraguay increased fourfold between 2004 and 2008, says the report, which also notes that once the migrant’s travel expenses are paid off, cash sent home from abroad helps reduce extreme poverty – defined as an inability to meet basic needs – which affects 37 percent of people in this country, according to the latest official statistics, released this year.

In Méndez’s view, the data shows that while the money sent home by migrants reduces poverty in the short term, the fact that so many of Paraguay’s workers are forced to go abroad to seek employment will inexorably lead to further deterioration of social and economic conditions in the country.

Remittances grew from 6.3 million dollars to 21 million dollars between 2001 and 2008.

Licensed nurses, who go overseas with legal work contracts, differ from most migrants, who are undocumented.

Over the last three years, many Paraguayan nurses have been recruited to work in Europe, mainly Italy.

More than 300 nurses have travelled overseas so far with three-year contracts and salaries of up to 3,000 euros (4,520 dollars) a month. And another 150 are packing their bags, according to the Paraguayan nursing association.

The report’s recommendations include the design of a national policy on migration that would provide guarantees for those who are interested in working abroad, as well as for those who want to return home.

But above all, said Méndez, the efforts should be aimed at ensuring that many of those who have left return to work in Paraguay, to create a stronger country.

However, there is no denial that remittances are a lifeline for many families like the Garcetes, who are now completely dependent on the monthly remittances sent home by Rosa María, because Freddy has still not found steady work in Paraguay.

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