After World War II, one of the first and tenth largest refugee-receiving countries was Venezuela. Today, Venezuela is experiencing a huge exodus of migrants and refugees as a result of the greater political, economic and humanitarian crisis it is facing, however it has not received as much international attention as other displacement events. The South American country has been reeling from an internal political battle, and a failing economy that has led to unemployment, power cuts, and shortage of food and medicine. Amidst all of this, Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition, took to streets last year and declared himself the rightful leader of the country against President Nicholas Maduro. The rising political chaos that started in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez has caused an 8000 percent increase in Venezuelans seeking refugee status outside of Venezuela. So where are Venezuelans going and how are they managing in these turbulent times?
How big is the refugee and migrant crisis in Venezuela?
Before delving deep into the numbers, it is critical to note that Venezuela is producing both migrants and refugees. A migrant is someone who chooses to resettle in another country to seek a better life and a refugee is someone who is forced to flee due to armed conflict or other crises. The dual nature of this exodus is what has led to the Venezuelan crisis being one of the largest migration and refugee events in recent history, despite the fact that we are still witnessing an active Syrian refugee crisis. According to the latest report released by the UNHCR, 5.1 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela. Of this number, some 4.2 million are in Latin America and Carribean region. In 2018 alone, around 4000 – 5000 people were exiting Venezuela per day. Many of those who leave Venezuela undertake journeys on foot lasting for 2.5 months to 7.5 months, without knowing their destination.
Where are the refugees and migrants going?
The mass exodus has led to pressure on the region, given that the majority of those who leave Venezuela go to neighboring countries and thus stay in the greater South American context. The country receiving the highest number of Venezuelans is Peru as it is the closest. As of August, Peru hosted 61.7% of Venezuelan asylum-seekers, whereas the U.S., as the second highest receiver, hosted only 13.1%. The difference between these two figures shows the disparity of economic, social and administrative pressure on smaller countries of the region. Similarly, the highest number of regular status holders (including residence permit holders) from Venezuela were in Colombia, and the second highest in Peru. A more complete breakdown of these statistics can be seen here so as to understand how exactly this movement is quickly evolving into a Latin American and Caribbean crisis, rather than just a Venezuelan crisis.
What is the impact on the migrants, refugees, and host countries?
As Venezuelans were leaving in such great numbers and often at short notice, their destinations were not fully prepared and they did not arrive to their destinations in the best of conditions. As the host of the highest percentage of Venezuelan migrants, Colombia is hard hit with the influx of refugees and migrants from its neighbour. Venezuelans in Colombia struggle to find jobs, as Colombia itself has issues of crime and drug trafficking, in part due to its porous borders. As a result, Venezuelan migrants and refugees continue to struggle even when they reach Colombia. Whatsmore, arrival in Columbia does not provide physical permanency for Venezuelans: many are forced to return back to Venezuela or head elsewhere. International aid efforts and initiatives to address this mass displacement are largely underfunded, meaning that the bulk of the financial burden falls on the immediate region. The level of scarcity for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and their hosts is made evident by the fact that only $2 billion in aid has been collected over the past 5 years, while the same amount was reached in just 2 years to address the Rohingya crisis, which involved only a quarter of the population that is displaced in Venezuela.
The usual struggles of migrants and refugees, even if in the same region, are present: the difficulty of finding jobs or affordable shelter, food and health insecurity, and adaptation to a different culture. The burden on host countries however, is also causing a wave of xenophobia among Latin American people towards Venezuelans. A World Bank study found that there are numerous stereotypes attached toVenezuelans in Peru, engendering xenophobia and hindering their inclusion: “If we close the borders, no more will come”; “All the Venezuelans in my country are criminals.”
Such perceptions exacerbate an already tough journey for Venezuelans escaping rough conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Peru has been criticized for excluding Venezuelans from its healthcare provisions and other social services available to other low-income Peruvians. A case can be made for host countries like Peru that are already struggling to provide for a high population and who are not receiving the same international support as some other causes are. However, experts suggest that the high rate of migration poses an opportunity for Peru to reshape its labour market, as Venezuelans are mostly contributing to informal sectors, even with significant skills. For example, 8% of Peru’s GDP is generated by young, hard working Venezuelans who are rebuilding their lives.
What are the impacts of COVID-19?
Health issues are often prevalent in migrant communities of such a large scale, as sanitation and hygiene are compromised. Thus, COVID-19 led to a further deterioration of conditions for an already vulnerable population. For example, before the pandemic, the number of Venezuelans seeking medical care at Colombia’s North Santander border area rose from 182 in 2015 to 5094 in 2018. Now, Latin America holds the record for being the region with the highest number of cases, and nearly 700,000 dead with COVID-19. Given that refugees and migrants mostly work in the informal labor sector in Latin America, restrictions due to COVID-19, which greatly affect these industries, have meant that many individuals cannot go to work and earn the money necessary to survive. This has led to the prediction that an estimated 231 million people in the region will experience poverty by the end of 2020.
The story of Dulce Maria, a refugee in Riohacha, Colombia who lost her job and then lost her home due to being unable to make rent payments, highlights how devastating this pandemic really is.. Even though evictions are suspended during these times, it is not strictly enforced and landlords have been able to exploit vulnerable populations. Brazil, which is one of the hardest hit countries by the virus, is also home to half a million people from Venezuela that have moved since 2015. During COVID-19, the Brazil-Venezuela border was among the first to be shut, which meant that refugees still hoping to cross the border had to either wait for long periods of time while potentially being exposed to the virus, or attempt a more dangerous crossing, sometimes by climbing or digging. This includes teens and children who set out for Brazil unaccompanied and are often victims of violence and crime on the way.
Escaping one place for another, and then living through a global pandemic in a new place is most likely a doubly traumatic experience. The key takeaway from the worsening crisis in Venezuela and Latin America is that the global focus needs to shift to regions often ignored in media and public discourse. Coverage of migration and refugee issues has primarily centered on the Middle East and Europe for a while, but now that one of the largest crises is taking place in Latin America, the international community must provide resources and humanitarian assistance, support policy efforts, and raise awareness to ensure that the Venezuelan people are not abandoned.