Venezuela in Crisis: the Plight of Venezuelan Refugees

Editorial Credit: Reynaldo Riobueno /

Venezuela in Crisis: the Plight of Venezuelan Refugees

While US public and media attention has been focused on  Central American families fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle states, a crisis of larger proportions has been unfolding farther south. Since 2015, more than 1.6 million Venezuelans have left their country for a variety of reasons, including economic collapse leading to record unemployment, food insecurity, and a lack of social services. Political violence and persecution by the Maduro government have also contributed to this exodus. The United Nations has estimated up to 2 million Venezuelans could leave their country in 2018.

Despite claims that the outflow is an economic one, a significant number of Venezuelans meet the criteria for refugee status. In March 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued guidance in March 2018, recommending that Venezuelans be considered de facto refugees and encouraging nations to offer them protection.

Neighboring countries, including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Trinidad and Tobago, initially opened their borders to Venezuelans, allowing them to enter their countries and search for work. However, the migration increasingly strains the resources of these nations and they are hardening their borders in response.

The United States, historically a leader in refugee protection, has provided about $56 million to governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to respond to the flow and to ensure that the growing population remains in the region. Ambassador Nikki Haley, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, visited the Colombian-Venezuelan border recently and announced another $9 million in aid. US economic sanctions against the Maduro regime have contributed to the economic crisis faced by the country, but have yet to pressure the Maduro government to alter its dictatorial policies or its systematic persecution of its political opponents.

Although financial support for Venezuelans has come from many countries, the primary response to the crisis has been regional. Colombia has received over 500,000 Venezuelans; Ecuador  230,000 in 2017 and 180,000 in the first three months of 2018; and Peru 150,000 during 2017. Caribbean nations have received 150,000 Venezuelans, including 40,000 by Trinidad and Tobago. An additional 40,000 have arrived in Brazil since 2016.  Venezuelans have reached as far as Chile to the south, Spain to the east, and Canada to the north. The United States received 27,569 asylum applications from Venezuelans in 2017, up 88 percent from the previous year. In recent years, Venezuelans have constituted the largest group of asylum-seekers in the United States.

The Venezuelans fleeing the Maduro government include political opponents of the regime and ordinary citizens who have participated in street protests because of the lack of available services, including health-care.  According to UNHCR, asylum claims in the region have increased 2,000 percent since 2014, with nearly 150,000 in need of protection. In guidance issued in March 2018, UNHCR requested that states in the region offer a range of protection options to Venezuelans, including temporary protected status, labor programs, and asylum protections.

In a recent fact-finding trip to Chile and Peru, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) and the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN) interviewed several Venezuelan migrants in shelters and welcoming centers.

One couple — a hospital nurse and her husband – had spontaneously joined a crowd protesting the lack of health-care supplies, which threatened the lives of many patients in the hospital. Upon returning home that evening, they noticed they were being followed by a person on a motorcycle. The Maduro administration hires government informants to follow protestors to ascertain their addresses, to threaten them, and to keep tabs on them. A few days after being followed home, the couple found a note in their mail telling them to leave the country or face possible death. They fled to Peru where they have applied for asylum. Prior to their departure, they moved their two children to a safe location. They hope to be able to send money to their children and ultimately to bring them to Peru. However, they do not yet have jobs or a secure status in Peru.

Nations in the region are allowing Venezuelans to enter, but most are not granting them asylum in substantial numbers, if at all. Instead, they hope the Venezuelans will return home in due course. However, many Venezuelans do not foresee a future in their country and are seeking ways to stay permanently in host countries. Many Caribbean nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, do not have asylum laws and they treat undocumented migrants as criminals. Colombia, which was initially receptive to Venezuelans, has since issued regulations that limit how Venezuelans can cross into border areas and has restricted their access to asylum. Colombia has only one shelter for Venezuelans, in the border town of Cucuta, but it often is empty because it only assists Venezuelans who have proper documentation. Chile, initially welcomed Venezuelans at its border, but now requires them to apply for entry at Chilean consulates in Venezuela and to show a passport, which many do not possess.

Carlos, from Valencia, Venezuela, left his hometown to support his wife and two children and to escape persecution from government troops that targeted him for participating in a protest rally. A graphic designer, Carlos lost his job with the collapse of the Venezuelan economy. His passport had expired and he was unable to get a new one from the Venezuelan government. He traveled to Colombia but was robbed there and could not find work, so he moved to Peru and has applied for refugee status. He lives in fear of being deported because of his undocumented status, but hopes to win his asylum case in Peru and bring his family to live with him. He says he cannot return to Venezuela, as the government has his information and would persecute him.

Of the countries in the region, Brazil has developed the most comprehensive response, passing a law that gives certain Venezuelans a two-year residence permit and devoting nine shelters to their care. Brazil also has established a refugee resettlement program for Venezuelans. Even so, there are signs that the Brazilian welcome mat is fraying, as Brazilians themselves struggle with a down economy.

Nations from outside the region are beginning to recognize the magnitude of this crisis and increase their support, but the overall response is still lacking. In March 2018, UNHCR requested a modest $46 million to assist Venezuelans in host countries, but as of July 31, 2018, only 48 percent of that amount had been raised, with the United States contributing $12 million. While the United States has provided the most aid to the region, it has not accepted any Venezuelan refugees for resettlement. However, Venezuelan asylum claims in the United States have jumped 160 percent since 2015.

Luis, from Barcelona, Venezuela, a mechanic, was forced to leave his two children and wife behind because he was unable to find work. Although he left for economic reasons, he was also growing increasingly concerned about the protests and violence in his nation. He complained that Venezuela was run by a dictatorship and that the government would know by your voter number if you did not vote for them and would not permit you to purchase food at a subsidized cost. They also persecute perceived opponents. He transited through Colombia and arrived in Peru and applied for asylum, but has been waiting eight months. He does odd jobs fixing automobiles when he can find work, but remains worried about his family, to whom he sends what money he can. Food and medicine are scarce in Venezuela, and the shops are empty. He hopes he will be able to secure asylum in Peru, find a permanent job, and send for his family, but there is no guarantee. He does not intend to return to Venezuela, where he sees no future.

The flashpoint of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, the main crossing point from Venezuela into Colombia. An estimated 35,000 people cross the Simón Bolívar bridge to Cúcuta every day. Most go back to Venezuela at night, but some stay. Thousands more use illegal entry points to reach Colombia without papers. Those who can afford them buy bus tickets to Bogotá, Quito, Lima, or Santiago. The rest walk or remain in Cúcuta. Conservative estimates put current net migration into Colombia from Venezuela at a minimum of 5,000 people per day, although it is uncertain how many remain in Colombia or transit through the country to other destinations.

NGOs, including faith-based organizations, provide food and medicine for as many border-crossers as possible, but they cannot meet the need without more international support. In Cúcuta, the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, runs the city’s only dedicated migrant center, providing Venezuelans food and medicine. SIMN feeds 1,500 Venezuelans in the center each day, with capacity expected to grow to 5,000 meals a day in the near future.

With the re-election of the Maduro regime on May 20, 2018 under illegitimate circumstances, migration into neighboring countries is expected to continue at high levels beyond 2018. It is uncertain how surrounding nations will respond to this influx, particularly without sufficient international help.

The Venezuelan exodus is one of the largest movements of migrants and refugees in the world. It may well surpass the Syrian refugee crisis. While nations in the region are keeping their borders open and receiving as many migrants and refugees as they can, the global response has been tepid, at best. With the final drafts of the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees completed, this crisis represents an opportunity to put the principles of those agreements into practice.

As such, the global community should commit to responsibility-sharing by increasing resettlement opportunities and international assistance, particularly to the poorer nations of the Caribbean that are receiving Venezuelans in large numbers. It should also encourage other nations, including the United States, to provide asylum, temporary protection, and other statuses that would allow Venezuelans to reside, at least temporarily and to work so that they can send money to their families at home.

With the political situation in Venezuela intractable and the economy near collapse, the Venezuelan crisis could extend for years, despite the world’s sanctions against the Maduro regime. The United States must work with the global community to implement a coherent and comprehensive plan to respond to this crisis.

August 14, 2018