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Argentines move abroad as economy deteriorates

Argentines are leaving the country in waves as its deepening economic crisis spurs thousands to emigrate for the first time in a generation.

The Latin American country has historically drawn in migrants from elsewhere. In the late 19th century, people arrived from Europe, followed by Jewish migrants in the pre-war period and later Bolivia, Paraguay and more recently those fleeing economic turmoil in Venezuela.

But poor job prospects, rocketing inflation and a government that is struggling to restore public confidence appear to be slowly reversing this trend, as more Argentines opt to escape the nation’s troubled finances.

“Five years ago, no one I knew lived abroad,” Belén Ferrari, 30, told the Financial Times. Fifteen of her friends from the capital, Buenos Aires, live in Europe, more than half of them in Spain. Some call Barcelona “BA on the Med”, in a reference to the latest influx from the capital.

Spain received 33,600 Argentine-born citizens last year, the most since 2008 and three times more than six years ago, according to Spain’s national statistics institute. These figures are considered an underestimate, migration officials said, since many hold European passports by descent.

Column chart of immigration flow from Argentina to Spain, since 2008

Requests to obtain Spanish or Italian citizenship hit a record last year. Between January and September 2021, more than 55,000 applications were made for a certificate of “non-naturalisation” issued by Argentina’s electoral chamber, a mandatory requirement when applying. That surpassed the highest peak of the previous economic crisis of 2001-2002, when 39,000 applications were made.

In neighbouring Chile and Uruguay, the number of residency applications by Argentines since 2020 has also reached new heights. Uruguay issued residency permits to 1,656 Argentines last year, the highest in almost a decade. At least 10,000 Argentines have become residents of Chile since 2017, making up the country’s sixth-largest migrant group.

How, and whether, to leave has become a big talking point among families, friends and colleagues. At wine bars in Buenos Aires’s more affluent neighbourhoods of Colegiales and Palermo, farewell parties have felt more frequent than birthday celebrations.

Ferrari, who trained as a journalist, said she moved to Madrid last year because of limited career prospects: “I was on a low wage made worse by inflation”, which is heading for 100 per cent this year.

Confidence in the Argentine economy has evaporated. The leftwing Peronist government is struggling to fund itself with an ever-increasing pile of domestic debt and precariously low-net international reserves. Political infighting ahead of an election next year has dashed any hopes about the government’s ability to shepherd reforms to bring down inflation.

Strict currency exchange controls are deterring foreign investment, and the rapid deterioration in sentiment and the government’s difficulty in funding itself are raising fears among bank analysts that an economic recovery will take years.

According to research by Statista, the minimum wage in Argentina is the lowest in dollar terms, after Venezuela, among nine major Latin American economies. Tomas Alet Baker, 31, who recently moved to the Spanish Balearic Islands, said his final pay cheque, when converted into dollars at the widely used unofficial exchange rate, was worth the same amount as when he first entered the workforce 10 years ago, wrecked by high inflation.

Chronic homelessness is evident in wealthier suburbs, and a decline in living standards is changing perceptions around security. Although overall poverty levels fell slightly to 37 per cent in the first quarter of this year, from 40 per cent in early 2020, there was a sizeable increase in extreme poverty and poverty among children, according to a September report published by the national statistics agency.

Pessimism and the public mood are big factors driving the moves overseas. “The numbers might not necessarily be very high, but the idea you might be better off somewhere else is growing and resonates,” said Roy Hora, a historian and investigator for CONICET, the country’s scientific and technical research council.

Migration statistics issued by authorities in Argentina are hard to come by, in part because emigration numbers have been historically insignificant, said Hora. At one point at the turn of the 20th century, foreigners in Buenos Aires outnumbered those born in Argentina, and so successive governments have had few incentives to publish official figures because small groups of émigrés were not worth monitoring.

Only during the pandemic have some figures been collected as part of Covid-19 immigration requirements. Between September 2020 and October 2021, around 50,000 Argentines stated that they were leaving to move to another country, an average of 3,500 per month.

“There’s a significant flow of creative and wealthy people leaving,” said Hora, and that could accelerate given how most pandemic-related travel restrictions have been lifted to major cities worldwide.

Argentine entrepreneur Mercedes Caamaño, 32, has seen the numbers first hand. Requests from Argentina made to her migration agency in Madrid, Cruzar El Charco, have increased by 40 per cent over the past 12 months. “It’s a historic moment, people are leaving like never before and it hasn’t stopped,” said Caamaño, who has lived in Spain since 2016.

What many clients have in common is that they are highly skilled professionals. “The country has lost its credibility among the public,” which will be hard to build back, Caamaño said.

Azul Agulla, 29, moved to London a year ago with no plans to return. Agulla said it had become easier to emigrate because of the onset of remote work and better access to information: “We’ve found loads of Argentines in London, there’s even a WhatsApp group for milanesas [breaded cutlets].”

Estimates suggest 26,000 Argentines were living in the UK last year, 6,000 more than in 2020 and the highest in at least a decade, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

“Living in Argentina there are obstacles everywhere, you can’t afford to travel, you’re constantly renegotiating your salary to keep up with inflation,” Agulla said. “It’s exhausting.”

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