Regional Responses to the Venezuelan Exodus

(Video: Dejusticia’s #VenezuelaBienvenida campaign sheds a light on the needs of Venezuelan migrants)

The flow of Venezuelans leaving their country due to economic and political conditions continues to increase. Good, real time data is scarce. But what information is available paints a sobering picture.

The best birds-eye figures so far have come from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), which found that asylum petitions from Venezuelans worldwide reached 34,000 in 2016. Alarmingly, this figure was overtaken by the middle of 2017, with the UNHCR finding that Venezuelan asylum claims from January through July had reached 39,000. Of these, the UN agency found that the United States, Brazil, Peru, Spain, and Mexico accounted for the bulk of cases. In the U.S. alone, one in every five asylum seekers is Venezuelan, making them the most common country of origin.

Yet these figures only apply to asylum seekers, not the total number of Venezuelans who have fled the country. A separate UNHCR document from July estimates that there are 300,000 Venezuelans in neighboring Colombia, 40,000 in Trinidad and Tobago and 30,000 in Brazil. Other countries in the Americas, from Ecuador to Argentina to Uruguay, have also seen an influx.

In Colombia, the UNHCR estimate is seen as low by some local approximations. As Semana reports, the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia estimates that some 1.2 million Venezuelans live in Colombia. Colombia and Venezuela share a porous border, and there is a large binational community that has long thrived and sought economic opportunities on each side of it. Immigration authorities report that 55,000 are believed to cross the border daily into Colombia, though most of these return to Venezuela and only cross to purchase goods.

As impressive as the estimate of Venezuelans in Colombia is, the scale of Venezuelan migration to Trinidad and Tobago is, per capita, even more so. The UNCHR’s estimate of 40,000 Venezuelans in the country amounts to almost three percent (2.9) of the country’s total population. By comparison, Colombia would have to receive 1.4 million Venezuelans in order for them to make up 3 percent of the population.

The Brazilian border with Venezuela, while more remote and less populated, has also seen a sharp increase in Venezuelan migration in recent months. The economic crisis and collapse of services have taken a toll on Venezuela’s indigenous Warao population, hundreds of whom have fled to Brazil to seek relief.

Regional Response

While the exodus has become a regional concern, in general the response has not been marked by a significant crackdowns on Venezuelan immigration. Only a handful of countries have actively made it more difficult for Venezuelans to enter. The most well-known of these is Panama, which recently implemented a new $60 visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens in an attempt to curb migration. But it also includes Argentina, which announced stricter immigration rules in January.

By contrast, other nations have attempted to address the humanitarian side of the issue. The UNHCR has specifically praised Peru and Brazil for offering temporary residency to Venezuelans fleeing the crisis.  Colombia issued an automatic renewal of Venezuelans’ visas in July, and has allowed them to extend their legal stay for up to two years. Colombia has also issued “Border Mobility Cards” to over 600,000 Venezuelans, allowing them entry into Colombia to access essential goods that are increasingly scarce in Venezuela.

In the United States, there have also been calls to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans, although the Trump administration appears unwilling to support this proposal considering its decision to allow TPS to expire for citizens of Nicaragua—and the potential expiration of TPS for El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti.

Civil society groups in countries affected by the spike in migration have also tried to pressure their governments to do more to address the needs of Venezuelans in their countries. In Colombia, human rights group Dejusticia has launched a campaign called #VenezuelaBienvenida, which combats discrimination against Venezuelan immigrants in the country. As the group puts it, the campaign is a “call for solidarity,” and one of its aims is to showcase how many of these are descendants of Colombians who originally fled the armed conflict.

In Brazil, Conectas has been especially involved in advocating for more resources for the crisis, and for local governments along the Brazilian border to treat Venezuelans who arrive with dignity and respect for their rights.

More Funding and Better Education                                                                                  

More resources will be needed as Venezuela’s crisis deepens. The combination of inflation and scarcity of basic goods and medicine is expected to worsen in the coming year, meaning that the number of people leaving Venezuela will grow. This will put a strain on the public resources of countries in the region, and could require support from international donors in order for countries to properly scale up their responses.

In the meantime, there is also room for improvement in the existing response. In August, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) issued a statement outlining certain gaps that need fixing, focusing primarily on the lack of clear information to migrants and refugees, and the lack of coordination. According to the JRS:

“Although States have implemented actions to mitigate the situation, these have been limited given the little or no accessibility and public dissemination of updated migration data or information for migrants or those seeking refuge. This masks the true magnitude of the problem, evidencing serious situations that require the timely and coordinated response of public institutions with the support of civil society to face possible difficulties in the protection of the rights of Venezuelan people in a situation of human mobility in the region.”