Adding to the Stress of Emigration from Venezuela: Passports hard to come by

As the state of the economy in Venezuela worsens and urgent needs for goods and services arise, citizens feel a growing pressure to emigrate. However, many have been forced to leave the country without a valid passport, and as a consequence, they are facing increasing challenges when seeking to regularize their situation in neighboring countries and exercise of their political rights in Venezuela from abroad.

The reasons so many lack passports are varied. A major factor is the fact that Venezuela’s state agency responsible for identification and migration services is in bureaucratic disarray, relying on a dysfunctional online platform to schedule an appointment, which should be accessed overnight from 5:30pm to 5am, with month-long waits for follow-up after the first appointment, and hampered by widespread paper and ink shortages. Although SAIME denies these allegations, in early 2017 the non-governmental organization Transparencia Venezuela gathered and filed 100 complaints of users that had not been able to get their passports within the established timeframe.

In the past, the government has in fact shown patterns of politicization of migration services: in early 2017 several opposition politicians and public figures reported having their passports seized or their migration procedures canceled. This suggests that Maduro’s government could be striving to limit the Venezuelan citizen’s right to freedom of mobility by hindering their access to travel documents. It could similarly be argued that it is using immigration control as an opportunity to leverage political intimidation.

Because of these inefficiencies, passports have turned into another state service offered on the black market, along with other official documents like the legal recognition of university degrees. To obtain a passport through official means, citizens must pay a fee of around $0.10 for administrative costs, and about $1.45 for an appointment. A passport extension requires an additional payment of approximately $0.60, and for an “express passport” a payment of about $1.45 is due. The price of a passport renewal requested at a consulate abroad ranges between $80 and $100. However, “gestores” on the internet, sometimes even SAIME officials, offer customers quick passport processing for an extra-official payment that can amount to $800. Considering that the current minimum wage in Venezuela is 1,307,646 Bs per month – equivalent to $4.93, it is apparent why some citizens would choose to leave without papers.

Official reports suggest that, by the end of 2017, of the estimated 550,000 Venezuelans in Colombia, around 374,000 had an irregular migration status. They had either overstayed their visas or entered Colombia without proper documentation. The same reports show that around 225,000 Venezuelans are estimated to have entered Colombia through unauthorized points last year, doing this to avoid the checkpoints.

As consequence of the significantly increased influx of Venezuelans into Colombia in the last several months, Colombia has shifted towards more restrictive migration policy. Last February, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that temporary border crossing cards for Venezuelans, known as Tarjetas de Movilidad Fronteriza, will no longer be issued. The cards were valid for six months and allowed Venezuelans living close to the border to enter Colombian territory, for no more than 7 consecutive days, to get food and medical supplies. To access the cards no passport was required, only filling out an online form. After Santos’s announcement, Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are now only able to apply for a Permiso Especial de Permanencia, a temporary residence permit granted exclusively to Venezuelans who have overstayed their visas and entered the country with a valid passport stamped at the border.

This change in policy represents a new challenge for Venezuelan immigrants, since lacking proper documentation also has implications for their ability to exercise their political rights in Venezuela from abroad. Today, in the context of the upcoming elections, possessing a stamped passport is key to guaranteeing their right to vote. Article 124 of the Organic Law of Electoral Processes establishes legal residence in a foreign country as a perquisite to register to participate in the elections overseas. For the many Venezuelans now living in Colombia who left Venezuela without a passport or entered Colombia through an unauthorized border crossing, obtaining a proof of residence just became more complicated due to the country’s new restrictive migration policies.

Passports are more than just a travel document, since they represent a proof of identity and a bond to a government expected to assist and protect citizens in transit. According to the UNHCR, Venezuelans in an irregular situation, without documentation, or unable to regularize their situation because of bureaucratic obstacles are vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and poverty.  A lack of a passport limits their access to education, their ability to enter the formal workforce, and engage in legal procedures to regularize their migration status. Having a passport makes it easier for them to have agency and defend their rights, which can easily get violated with impunity because victims, fearing deportation, don’t denounce the abuses they experience when exercising their right to mobility.

On March 20th the Director of the National Office of the Electoral Register announced that only 108,623 Venezuelans in foreign countries had registered to vote, which means that the foreign votes will only amount to 0.52% of the total. This reality of Venezuelans not being able to exercise their political rights from abroad only adds to the unreliable circumstances under which the May 20th election may take place. Especially because the legal loophole in which Venezuelans without proper documentation in Colombia have found themselves in after the migration laws’ reform is a result of inefficiencies in the state’s migration and identification offices.

Note: The figures shown for the price of a passport were converted using dolartoday.com and only represent approximate values as the exchange rate is rapidly fluctuating every day.

Melissa Medina-Márquez studies Political Science and Economics at the Free University of Berlin and is currently an Intern for the Venezuela and Drug Policy Programs at WOLA.