Mapping the Rise of Civil Society Organizations in Latin America Led by Venezuelan Migrants
February 15, 2023
Silvina Acosta is a Venezuelan journalist, living in Argentina, who has worked for numerous media outlets, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral organizations in Venezuela, the United States, and Central America. This article is part of a bi-monthly blog she is writing for CMS – “Postings from the Venezuelan Diaspora”– that reports on the situation of Venezuelan migrants, refugees, and expatriates throughout the world. CMS features her work on its website and in its weekly Migration Update.
Political instability and extreme poverty have led to the exodus of over 7 million Venezuelans from their homes over the past several years. They have fled to neighboring countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean, attempting to find new lives away from persecution and toward self-sufficiency.
The arrival of Venezuelan migrants and refugees to the region’s countries has led to the creation of numerous organizations designed to assist them. In fact, Venezuelans have begun forming their own organizations to serve the Venezuelan diaspora.
These Venezuelan organizations accompany and assist their fellow citizens while actively working to influence the adoption of just migration policies and measures to implement them.
The following chronicles the rise of Venezuelan-led groups in the region and how they are supporting Venezuelans who have fled their homeland.
Growth of Venezuelan Migrants’ Organizations
Manitas Amarillas, founded by a Venezuelan doctor in 2018 in Colombia, is a civil organization dedicated to guaranteeing the right to health for migrants and “those who require it, regardless of nationality.”
Manitas Amarillas has recruited up to a hundred doctors and volunteers to serve in health brigades and make food deliveries. It has the financial support of international organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Norwegian Council, and the Red Cross, among others.
“Our convening power has all the strength in socialmedia. That’s where we summon health professionals… and expand our strength. International organizations have noticed our capacity to intervene,” said Carmen Aída Farías, Manitas Amarillas’ founder and president, cited by the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.
The story of Manitas Amarillas is similar to those of other non-profit organizations that originate from citizen initiatives in different cities of Colombia. They all have a common origin: the union of people with a vocation to help migrants, among them their Venezuelan brothers and sisters.
The exact number of organizations (created in Colombia by Venezuelans) is uncertain, explained Txomin Las Heras, president of the Asociación Diálogo Ciudadano Colombo-Venezolano and researcher at the Observatorio de Venezuela of the Universidad del Rosario. “They change according to the needs or the situations of the migratory phenomenon.”
“Civil organizations are born and grow according to a specific need, such as migratory assistance or pandemic aid, for example, but others remain because they change their focus and adapt to the new realities of the diaspora,” added Las Heras.
But they also have an advantage. “They know their population and are based in the area. Therefore, they reach areas where large organizations have more problems accessing, which makes them strategic allies.”
Identifying Characteristics and Objectives of Venezuelan Migrants’ Organizations
Two different mappings have helped identify Venezuelan migrant associations and grassroots organizations, formed and led by Venezuelan migrants.
The purpose of the first exploratory research study, “Mapeo de organizaciones y organizaciones de migrantes venezolanos en América Latina” (Mapping of Venezuelan Migrant Associations and Organizations in Latin America) was to find opportunities for common work, contribute to the creation of networks and strengthen their capacities, and to identify possibilities for financial, technical, and human support for the Venezuelan migrant community.
The study discovered that of the 326 organizations founded by Venezuelans, 204 were located in Colombia and 122 were located in other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Of that number, a total of 74 organizations responded to a 32-question questionnaire asking about the general characteristics of their migrant associations. Sixty organizations were selected for the study, as they had the criteria that matched the objective of the research.
Anitza Freitez, Research Team Coordinator of this study and the Observatorio Venezolano de Migración (OVM), confirmed that most of the contacted social organizations formed by Venezuelan migrants are in Colombia. ” In contrast to other countries, we detected more Venezuelan migrant associations and grassroots organizations in the biggest cities and small towns in Colombian territory.”
The information gathered from December 2020 through January 2021 revealed that the majority of the 60 organizations were started between 2017- 2019, during the massive migration of Venezuelans to surrounding countries and throughout Latin America.
“We started this exploratory study because we observed a high growth rate of civil organizations and wanted to know their characteristics and objectives. Currently, we are updating the mapping because these organizations are mutating in their purpose due to the dynamics of the host countries. In the beginning, they provided humanitarian aid, but nowadays, they are increasingly dedicated to assisting in regulation, labor insertion, and integration,” Freitez explained.
Among the study’s most relevant findings are the following:
- 73 percent of the organizations founded by Venezuelan migrants are legally registered in the host country and work with their own funding (membership fees, organization of activities, donations). One in three has no external sources of support, and 20 percent have the financial support of international institutions.
- Associations surveyed reported that 57 percent are led by women; 8 percent are led by men; 27 percent share leadership between men and women; and 8 percent are led by LGBTIQ+ people.
- Nearly four out of five participants have completed a university education, with half having entered postgraduate studies.
- Volunteers and/or workers in these organizations varied and ranged from 2 to 60 people, with an average of 23 people participating.
- The majority of the organizations communicate their actions to their target population through social media sites: WhatsApp and Instagram (93 percent in both cases), followed by Facebook (82 percent), Twitter (42 percent), LinkedIn (10 percent), Web Portal and Mail (7 percent in both cases), YouTube (7 percent), and Telegram (3 percent).
- Frequent use of social networks as a tool for work and advocacy helps to counteract the fact that most of the organizations surveyed do not have a physical space for their activities (75%). Only 17 percent of the organizations report that they have rented premises and 5 percent have been able to access a space.
- More than 50 percent are focused on the most pressing needs of the Venezuelan migrant population in vulnerable situations, such as access to primary care, documentation, livelihoods, and anti-discrimination assistance. First and foremost, they provide direct assistance to Venezuelan migrants and refugees through social services, psychosocial care, and health promotion.
- 69 percent of the organizations are part of a network that brings together different associations of migrant Venezuelan nationals, and 62 percent work with governmental bodies in the host country.
Making Their Work Visible to the Venezuelan Diaspora
Similar results were found in another exploratory study conducted in 2021 by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) entitled, “Venezuelan Migrant And Refugee Organizations in Latin America And The Caribbean.”
This study aimed to gather information about the origins, objectives, and activities of the organizations, as well as to make visible the work they do for their fellow Venezuelans.
The data found the following:
- The majority of the organizations surveyed have been created in the last five years in response to the increased flow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees throughout the region. They have provided material assistance and psychosocial support to their compatriots since the beginning of their activities.
- A strong female presence exists in the leadership, staff, and membership of the organizations. The oldest organizations were chaired generally by men, but today more women are becoming involved in management positions and decision-making.
- More recently established organizations serve particular professions, such as associations serving medical and engineering professionals. They assist Venezuelans with the regularization of their legal status, validation of their degrees, networking with similar professionals, and the search for employment.
- All of the organizations surveyed, including associations, have experienced some difficulty in helping Venezuelans regularize their legal status.
- Organizations located in the countries bordering or closest to Venezuela, many with limited resources, have seen an exponential increase in activities related to food aid and the provision of shelter and personal hygiene kits, particularly during the pandemic.
- A majority of the organizations surveyed have learned to adapt their objectives and activities to the situations migrants and host societies are encountering, such as the impact of Covid-19 on the diaspora population and the attitude of the host governments toward the newly arrived Venezuelans.
- Finally, several organizations interviewed stated that women are a higher-risk group requiring greater attention, particularly vulnerable pregnant women.
The Role of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, in collaboration with other faith groups and civil society organizations, has been vital in helping to improve the complex situation of the Venezuelan diaspora.
Clamor, the Latin American and Caribbean Church Network on Migration, Displacement, Refuge, and Trafficking, has mapped church organizations that serve migrants. In 2022, the mapping tool comprised data from 635 publications within five transit zones, 22 countries, and 345 receiving cities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) selected Clamor from among 14 organizations worldwide as the organizer of the World Refugee Forum 2023.
Founded in 2017, Clamor has 18 national chapters within 22 countries in the region. Elvy Monzant, Executive Secretary of Clamor, stressed to Aica (Agencia Informativa Católica Argentina) that “we are one of the largest ecclesial networks in the world.”
“Our guide is the four verbs the Pope proposed to us: Welcome, Protect, Promote and Integrate… The objective is to solve concrete cases together in favor of people in forced mobility. The articulation works on the ground, within the countries, and in the connection between national networks. The Network helps us to serve migrants more and better,” Monzant added.
Some of the Catholic religious congregations that make up Clamor are the Scalabrinians, Jesuit Migrant Network, Jesuit Refugee Service, Franciscan Migrant Network, Redemptorist Mercedarian Order, the Salesians, the Augustinians, the Adorers, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Juanist Sisters.
The two exploratory studies from OVM and IOM provide insight into the origin, structure, and purpose of the new organizations serving the Venezuelan diaspora in the region.
The primary finding is that Venezuelan organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean can play an important role in the design of strategies and measures aimed at responding to the needs of their compatriots, including migrants and refugees.
Their information, experience, field work and direct contact with those in need make them the source of both aid and integration assistance and projects, in association with similar associations or other national and international allies.
Moreover, the organizations have adapted their mission to respond to the evolving needs of the Venezuelan diaspora, including the need for integration services such as documentation and job identification.
Finally, Venezuelan-led organizations have been able to leverage networks to better serve their fellow citizens and others. As the IOM highlights in its study, greater coordination between organizations generates a more productive formulation of quantified and concrete requests to donors, governmental institutions, non-governmental, and international agencies.
The Venezuelan Migration Observatory has a database by country, which not only lists organizations created by Venezuelans, but also various national and international networks and coalitions formed in receiving countries.
Given the protracted nature of the displacement of Venezuelans, the rise of Venezuelan-led organizations in the region is vital, as they are positioned to make the transition and integration of Venezuelans into surrounding countries easier. They also can help the Venezuelan diaspora become more cohesive and coordinated in seeking change in their homeland, so that one day they have a choice to return to their country.
February 15, 2022