Venezuelan Migrants in South America Seek New Destinations in the United States and Europe
July 7, 2022
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.
“They were the longest five minutes of my life,” said Luis O.* of when he crossed the Rio Grande last April to reach American soil. “I was drowning, and I gave myself to God.”
After 40 days of travel on foot and by bus from Venezuela, 26-year-old Luis and two of his friends arrived in Texas. They are staying with relatives, under supervision of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement while their asylum claims are processed.
“When we were able to cross the river, we were welcomed and held in a precinct for only three days until we were transferred to a church in Laredo. They treated us well and gave me my Bible, ID, and cell phone. We were lucky. I know many compatriots who were held for 30 days,” Luis expressed.
Before arriving at the US-Mexico border, Luis and his friends walked through the Colombian-Panamanian jungle for six days, and then journeyed through Central America and Mexico on multiple buses, aided by human smugglers or “coyotes.”
Luis left Venezuela in 2017 after being threatened for his assiduous participation in street protests. He lived in Ecuador for six months, then moved on to Peru with his partner and two daughters.
In 2018, Luis secured a job at a paper company in Lima, Peru, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. He survived quarantine making deliveries on his motorcycle. However, his expenses soon exceeded his income, and he could no longer provide for his family. His wife was entirely dedicated to raising their young daughters at home.
In January 2022, Luis and his family returned to Venezuela. They considered other destinations in Latin America, such as Chile or Argentina, but after years of being apart, they wanted to see their families in Venezuela again. “I had gone five years without seeing my parents, and my partner was suffering from postpartum depression,” Luis explained.
“My first impression upon entering Venezuelan territory by bus was that nothing had changed here. The bus was stopped by police and military officers 12 times to extort money from the passengers. In total, they took $180 from me. The military took my country from me.”
The reunion was emotional for the whole family, but by the third day back in Venezuela, they ran out of food. Luis’s first trip to the market cost him $200, and he knew it was unsustainable to stay in Venezuela. “From Peru, we arrived with only $1600, and when I realized that I would not have enough money even for one more month; I began to plan my trip to the United States with a friend in Peru.”
Leaving his partner and daughters in Venezuela with his remaining money, Luis met his friend in Bogota on his way north. “The most painful thing was to see my faithful Catholic parents selling their gold wedding rings to help me with my trip. I felt like the worst person in the world.”
Despite the sacrifices, Luis felt assured he was blessed, and that God would accompany him on the risky journey. “The hardest part was crossing the jungle of the Darien. I saw a Haitian woman die and a baby abandoned next to her mother’s lifeless body,” Luis disclosed.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Luis was one of more than 133,000 migrants who crossed the Darien Gap in 2021 – up from 8,500 in 2020 and 23,000 in 2019. The Darien Gap, which marks the border between Colombia and Panama, is one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes because of the brutal terrain, dangerous wildlife, and criminal groups. Luis warned others against taking the route he did, especially alone.
Secondary Migration Out of Latin America
Like Luis, more and more Venezuelan migrants in South America are opting to leave the sub-region to seek new horizons in the United States or Europe.
Migrants from Venezuela, who survived the pandemic crisis in neighboring countries, began to leave the sub-region in 2021, going by plane to Mexico and then to the United States.
“In another joint analysis carried out by the R4V Platform in Mexico in September and October 2021, of Venezuelans residing in five cities (Monterrey, Querétaro, Puebla, Cancún and Playa del Carmen) who had arrived mostly by plane, a significant proportion noted that they had lived previously in Colombia, Peru or Ecuador before traveling to Mexico, and had left those other host countries primarily due to xenophobia, discrimination and precarious economic situations.”
Given such adverse conditions, migratory flows have increased, especially to the United States, from Venezuela and other South American countries. On the US-Mexico border, the transit of Venezuelans increased from 205 in January 2021 to 25,000 in December of the same year.
Indirect migration to Europe, especially Spain, is also growing. More and more Venezuelans are choosing Spain as their new home. At least 440,000 registered Venezuelans are living in the country. Madrid hosts the largest share of Venezuelan migrants in Spain, with 130,724 residing in the city.
A Second Migration for Two Remote Workers
“The best decision ever,” is how Luisa*, a 34-year-old professional and mother summarized her choice to start a new life in Spain. She moved with her family to Spain after living for more than four years in Argentina.
On Christmas day in 2021, Luisa, her husband Mateo* (36), and their two-year-old daughter arrived in Valencia, Spain.
Professionals in chemistry and computing, Luisa and Mateo left Venezuela in 2017 to move to Buenos Aires, where Mateo’s older brother had lived for many years.
The couple settled down quickly in the South American nation. Both found good-paying jobs in their fields, and they also received their immigration status immediately. They consider themselves very fortunate to have lived in Buenos Aires.
However, their plans began to change with the pandemic and the birth of their daughter. “The rising inflation in Argentina started to affect our income,” Luisa said. “Argentina is a seesaw. We couldn’t save money, much less with the baby. We no longer had the same quality of life.”
Telecommuting during the COVID-19 pandemic opened new horizons for them: an excellent job opportunity in Spain. After three months of remote work, Luisa was offered the option to relocate to Valencia. After a long wait of six months to renew her Venezuelan passport, she and her family left Argentina behind.
“We improved our quality of life, and we have real possibilities for the future,” Mateo remarked. He added that working in information technology has made his life easier as a migrant, opening doors to remote work, visa sponsorship, and a good salary.
“South America Is the Same Everywhere.”
“I chose Chile because it was the most economically stable country. I always saw Chile as a springboard to be able to go to Spain,” explained Juan Pedro*, a 31-year-old electrical engineer from Venezuela.
He arrived alone with very little money in February 2018 in Santiago de Chile. Four months after his arrival, he got a job in a chocolate shop, which he said saved his life. His employers helped him get an apartment to rent and lent him money when he needed it urgently. He was able to bring his partner to join him one year later.
“I loved everything at the beginning,” Juan Pedro recounted, “But after the social outbreak in Chile in 2019, I felt like I was in Venezuela.” In 2019, a series of protests and riots in response to an increase of the subway fare, the rising cost of living, and inequality in Chile began in Santiago and spread throughout the country.
Given the unrest and the pandemic, Juan Pedro, and his partner, who has Portuguese citizenship, decided to move to Spain. Due to familial relationships, Juan Pedro was also able to gain Italian citizenship. “We saved up to move to Europe because South America is the same everywhere.”
Within three months, he got a job in his specialty at Barajas Airport, rented an apartment, and now lives near his cousins. “The second migration is different, because you already went through a lot in the first one. I [hope I don’t] have to migrate a third time.”
Before traveling to Spain, Juan Pedro visited Venezuela to continue with paperwork related to his Italian nationality. “I felt like I was in another country. Even though I was with my family, I didn’t feel at ease in Venezuela,” he expressed. “I don’t see myself returning to Venezuela. I would instead like to take my parents and my brother out of there. I want to plant roots here in Spain and meet my relatives in Italy.”
According to the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), co-led by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of May 5, 2022, some 6,133,473 Venezuelans had left their country.
Of these, 5,083,998 were in Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly distributed in Colombia (1.8 million), Peru (1.3 million), Ecuador (508,900), and Chile (448,100).
In 2022, there will be some 8.9 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a significant increase compared to 2021, according to the 2022 Response Plan of the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V).
*Names have been changed to protect the safety of the interviewees and their families.
July 7, 2022