With over 5 million Venezuelans fleeing their home country, Latin America is facing the largest migration crisis in its history. Colombia, Peru, and Chile host the largest numbers of Venezuelan migrants in the region. Each country has responded differently to the crisis in terms of the provision of education. Venezuelan migrants attempting to enter the primary, secondary, and higher education systems encounter a variety of barriers, from struggles with documentation to limited availability of spaces in schools to cultural barriers and xenophobia.
Linda,* a Venezuelan former teacher in her thirties, is one of the more than 200,000 Venezuelans in Chile with irregular status. She lives in fear of deportation and of being separated from her 8-month-old daughter, a Chilean citizen by birth. In April 2021, Chilean President Sebastán Piñera signed a new migration law that expedites deportations and makes it more difficult for migrants to adjust their status.
Margarita E. de Lopez, 63, a former journalist, traveled for 38 hours to reach her home in Caracas, Venezuela. She walked along irregular pathways (trochas) in Colombia and then took a bus through Venezuela, which was stopped 22 times to allow Bolivarian security forces to collect bribes from each of its 45 passengers. Although the number of Venezuelan returnees has decreased since September 2020, returnees and those fleeing Venezuela share the same experience of crossing the irregular paths and risking their lives, their few belongings, and savings.
On March 8, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorkas announced that he is designating Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for an 18-month period, until September 2022. CMS estimates that there are 275,000 undocumented Venezuelan nationals living in the United States as of March 8, 2021 who could benefit from this status
Venezuelan returnees are turning around and new migrants are joining them to walk to Colombia and other receiving countries in the subregion. The direction of the migration flow is changing, and it seems unstoppable. Meanwhile, the number of returnees entering Venezuelan legal checkpoints seems to be decreasing. Since last September, groups of youths, women, children, and entire families are daily walking back to Colombia using informal border paths.
More than 4,000 Venezuelan citizens, stranded in 10 countries, have demanded repatriation flights to Venezuela, according to news reports. For more than three months, Venezuelans living in vulnerable situations during the pandemic have been waiting for flights in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, Panamá, and the United States. Joselin Ferrer, a 41 years old lawyer, is one of the few Venezuelans who has been able to return to her country.
Thousands of Venezuelan migrants in South America face a Hobson’s choice, remain in their host countries in conditions of extreme vulnerability and mandatory quarantines, or return to Venezuela, despite the risks of contagion from the virus, the closure of borders, and Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
The Venezuelan economic, political and health crisis has triggered an exodus of Venezuelans to countries throughout the region. As of early 2019, an estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans had fled to other countries in the region and beyond. The paper reports on the findings and recommendations from public health missions undertaken in the summer of 2018 to two communities that have received large numbers of Venezuelans: (1) Cúcuta, in the Colombian border state of North Santander, and; (2) Bôa Vista and Pacaraima, in the state of Roraima, Brazil. These studies included interviews with health providers and organizations engaged in the humanitarian response, secondary analysis of grey literature, and data shared by key informants. Surveillance data demonstrated increases in infectious diseases, as well as adverse maternal and neonatal health outcomes among Venezuelans in both North Santander and Roraima. The paper finds that while the Colombian and Brazilian government responses to the immediate needs of Venezuelans have been admirable, they are not sustainable. In particular, there is an urgent need for an expanded humanitarian response to the Venezuelan migrant crisis in the region, particularly to address health needs where surveillance data shows recent and rapid rises in infectious diseases, acute malnutrition, and poor maternal and neonatal health outcomes. It reports that lack of access to preventative and primary care and inadequate funding of life-saving emergency care could result in a health crisis for Venezuelans in Colombia and could impact public health more broadly if not addressed through a more comprehensive and adequately funded humanitarian response. In Brazil, there is a need to invest in integration programs to improve the health and wellbeing of Venezuelans who have fled their country, with sensitivity to the needs of receiving communities, especially those who are underserved, in order to minimize resentment from the local population. This complex and costly process, the paper concludes, will require political will and financial support from neighboring countries, and the international community at large. In the longer term, however, only a resolution of the complex health and humanitarian crisis within Venezuela itself will address these transnational threats to health in the region.