Argentina economic boom coaxes back immigrants
Mon Oct 31, 2005 9:52 AM ET

By Louise Egan

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The sound of chatter in a foreign language wafts out of an unfinished building in Buenos Aires' tiny but bustling Chinatown. Not anything Asian, but Guarani - the mother tongue of Paraguay's indigenous people.

A dozen construction workers from Paraguay, chatting over cigarettes and orange soda, say they have come to take part in Argentina's three-year economic boom, which has led to a resurgence in immigration from neighboring countries.

"I came here just four or five months ago to try my luck. Back home, working on farms you can't make any money. There's a lot more work here," said 25-year-old Darlis Gonzalez, speaking shyly in Spanish a few feet away from Chinese and Taiwanese shops, vestiges of a previous wave of immigrants.

In recent decades, Argentina drew most of its immigrants from neighboring Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru and before that lured millions of Europeans, drawn by the country's natural resources wealth, which made its people among the world's 10 richest at the end of World War II.

But its allure vanished when its economy contracted by one-fifth during a 1999-2002 recession, and the peso currency plummeted about 70 percent in value against the dollar.

But now that the country's gross domestic product is growing for the third straight year at an annual rate of more than 8 percent, there are signs that Argentina is returning to its long-time role as a magnet for impoverished foreigners.

There are no official data yet on post-crisis immigration but nongovernmental groups say workers are flowing into Argentina in large numbers to work in the construction boom in Buenos Aires and in windswept southern Patagonia, a fast-growing destination for tourists drawn by its wildlife and natural beauty including mammoth glaciers.

Other immigrants work in textile factories, farms or as fruit and vegetable vendors.

"The majority of those who are coming now are Bolivians or Peruvians and Paraguayans to a lesser extent but still in large numbers. Of course, they earn a lot less back home because of instability. There are no jobs there," said Mario Santillo, director of the Center for Latin American Migratory Studies, CEMLA, in Buenos Aires.

CEMLA estimates there are now about 600,000 Bolivians in Argentina while the 2001 census puts the number at 233,000. Some enter the country with tourist visas and remain illegally, researchers from non-governmental organizations say.

In fact, Bolivians' interest in Argentine jobs is such that some unscrupulous employers prey on that need, recruiting them in La Paz for what they promise will be above-board jobs but then take away their passports on arrival, forcing them to work in illegal sweatshops in Buenos Aires, CEMLA says.

Last week, city officials pressed charges against one businessman who they say forced women to work 16-hour days in a sewing workshop and sleep with their children on site.


Argentina's economy may be booming but living standards have yet to recover fully from the crisis. Today, 38 percent of Argentines live in poverty, unemployment is 12 percent and forecast double-digit inflation this year could make life more difficult for families struggling to make ends meet.

But analysts say things still look brighter here than in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America where social and political turmoil have forced out two presidents in two years.

Argentine wages are still attractive to Peruvians and Paraguayans even though they can afford to send less cash home to their families than they could in the bonanza years of the 1990s, when the Argentine peso was pegged at one-to-one to the dollar.

"The composition of the immigrants has changed, now there are more families and in the case of Peruvians, for example, the number must be very similar to what it was prior to the crisis," said Jorge Urieri, a researcher with the Argentine office of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

Gonzalez, the Paraguayan, says he will probably stick it out in Argentina, but at some sacrifice.

"I'm here alone. I don't have any family. It's difficult, you have to just work and nothing else," said Gonzalez.