March 6, 2021

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The more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans who left the island after María have already returned


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SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico suffered after Hurricane María in 2017 an exit that exceeded 200,000 people for humanitarian reasons, a population that returned with improved living conditions, according to a study by the University of Puerto Rico that refutes the version of emptied by a traditional migration process.

José Caraballo, author of the study and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Research Institute of the University of Puerto Rico, told Efe on Tuesday that estimates place the exit between 200,000 and 400,000 people after María due to the degradation of living conditions, who in almost all of them returned as soon as possible.

The demographer maintained that these figures do not reflect a classic migratory process, but rather a departure for a humanitarian cause with a return.

Caraballo analyzes the matter in the academic article “Review of the current population databases of Puerto Rico”, published in the scientific journal Population and Environment, of the Springer publishing house.

“It was thought that they emigrated, but in reality they were refugees,” said Caraballo, who clarified that practically all of these people returned at the beginning of 2018.

According to available statistics, between July 2018 and June 2019, 340 more people returned than left, the first time since the 1970s that a positive balance had been recorded, a historical fact that reflects how the people who had left after Maria returned to the island en masse.

LEFT PUERTO RICO AS REFUGEES

Caraballo insisted that this implies that these people left Puerto Rico as refugees, without the intention of moving permanently and that they returned as soon as they could.

In 2019, however, the return of people who left for humanitarian reasons was interrupted and the traditional pattern of migration abroad returned, once those who left due to the hurricane had already returned.

“These people did not want to migrate, but sought refuge,” he said, after clarifying that the supposed “emptying” of the population that has been spoken of in recent years is not correct.

“In fact, as the electricity service was activated – which in some places took up to a year to recover – people came back,” said the demographer.

“We initially thought that they were migrants, but in reality they were refugees who left by the hundreds of thousands,” he said.

“It was a process caused even by the lack of food,” said the demographer.

The Census Bureau’s Community Survey indicates that during 2019 35,000 people left in net terms – the difference between those who left and entered.

Caraballo argued that regardless of what happened after María, if emigration is to be stopped, it must be committed to sustained economic development that does not exist now.

LOW FERTILITY RATES

Population research in Puerto Rico has gained relevance since the mid-2000s, when low fertility rates and migration combined to reduce the total population of the island.

Migration estimates after Hurricane Maria differed according to the data set used and the time interval covered.

In this context, timely delivery of population data was necessary, but lacking, according to Caraballo.

For example, delays in publishing death records forced researchers to estimate the death toll through other means, leading to divergent results.

Caraballo states in the article that the lack of good statistical sources in Puerto Rico is a disadvantage for economic development.

Additionally, data on race and ethnicity continues to be collected by federal authorities using questions that are inappropriate to the sociocultural context of Puerto Rico, limiting analyzes of inequality.

Caraballo highlighted that despite the problems derived from the data, there are critical demographic situations that can be addressed with the population information available in Puerto Rico.

He said that, for example, since the early 2000s the fertility rate has fallen below replacement levels of 2.1 children per woman, reaching a low of 1.04 in 2019.



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