Latin America Advisor Q&A on Venezuela’s Migration and Refugee Crisis

On February 26 the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor had a Q&A on the impact of Venezuela’s exodus and the regional response. The question and my response is below. You can read responses from Francisco Márquez and Maria Velez de Berliner here.

Question: Brazil’s government is declaring an emergency in Roraima, in order to allocate funding and troops to the northern border state to help control a flood of Venezuelan refugees in the area, Brazil’s defense minister said this month. Approximately 40,000 Venezuelans now inhabit the state capital, Boa Vista, representing about 10 percent if the city’s population. Meantime, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has tightened border controls and heightened security in border cities that have been hardest-hit by the Venezuelan refugee crisis. How well have both countries’ governments been handling the influx of Venezuelans? What security issues are most pressing for border areas in Colombia and Brazil? How much assistance will the regional and national governments need to deal with the crisis, and what more can be done as Venezuela’s outlook worsens?

Geoff Ramsey: Venezuela’s migration crisis will require the international community to increase funding for humanitarian responses, and to refrain from worsening the crisis by supporting sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector.

Civil society organizations responding to the migration flow have criticized the lack of a meaningful humanitarian response. Venezuelan migrants and refugees face major obstacles in accessing food, medicines, housing, education for children, and employment. This is particularly true in Colombia, Brazil, or the Caribbean, which are primary destinations of the poorest Venezuelans who lack the means to travel further. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that as many as 750,000 Venezuelans have fled to these three destinations.

The United States can play an important role in addressing the situation, and in encouraging other actors in the international donor community to do their part. But the response from the Trump administration has been inadequate. So far the administration has only signaled a willingness to shift a portion of assistance to civil society in Venezuela (for which the State Department requested $9 million in FY2019) to address the needs of Venezuelans in Colombia. A humanitarian response in all affected countries will require a far more significant investment.

Ensuring funding for these efforts may be difficult in today’s polarized climate in Washington, but there is one way the Trump administration can address the situation without relying on Congress. Sanctions on either Venezuelan crude exports or imports of refined oil would inevitably worsen the already tragic toll of Venezuela’s economic collapse, and would doubtlessly accelerate mass migration. For these reasons, an executive order to this effect must be avoided at all costs.