Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 08, 2020
Lifting the veil on the Venezuelan migrant crisis

Venezuela does not easily come to mind when discussing the issue of displaced populations in many parts of the world. Yet, according to the United Nations, more than 5.1 million people have fled from Venezuela since 2016 to flee the severe humanitarian crisis caused by the Nicolas Maduro regime; indeed, these Venezuelan refugees constitute the second largest migrant population in the world, just after Syrians. In an unprecedented migration wave in Latin America, most Venezuelan migrants have found shelter in Colombia (1,400,000), Peru (829,000) and Ecuador (425,000). This situation represents a massive challenge for host countries that are themselves weighed down by their own problems which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such influx of foreign people is a relatively new phenomenon for the Andean countries where, historically, nationals have migrated in large numbers in the 1980s and ‘90s seeking new opportunities. This is the first time that governments and societies in the region are facing a flood of migrants. It is thus imperative for the host governments to design policies that can integrate the migrant population into the labour market, and the education and health systems as well.

Why Venezuelans are fleeing

Under the Nicolas Maduro regime, the Venezuelan people have experienced worsening standards of living over the years. For example, Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is around $3 USD.  With estimates of inflation rates reaching 15,000  percent this year, it has become nearly impossible for the majority of Venezuela’s population to meet their minimum essential needs. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) under Michelle Bachelet´s tenure has described in a report the harsh humanitarian crisis that has enveloped Venezuela. The report details the difficulties for Venezuelans in accessing their basic food basket, from people needing to queue for up to 10 hours to buy food in supermarkets to around three million people (representing roughly a tenth of the population) suffering from malnourishment. The same report describes diminishing political freedoms and a climate of systematic state violence, with pro-regime paramilitary groups repressing demonstrations and some 2,124 extrajudicial killings from state security forces being reported between January and May 2019. A UN fact-finding mission, in an even more incriminating report, has concluded that Maduro´s regime has committed crimes against humanity.

Over the years basic services such as running water, electricity, and healthcare have collapsed. In 2019, the country suffered a one-week power blackout across all 23 states, and more than 43,000 power failures were registered in the first semester of 2019. Only 18 percent of the population has access to clean water, while a vast majority must pay for water in foreign currency at high prices. The public health system has deteriorated dramatically, with medical staff being overwhelmingly underpaid and most hospitals getting closed down or being forced to work at half their capacity because of lack of electricity or running water. Maduro’s regime and their supporters have blamed the sanctions imposed by the United States for exacerbating the country’s economic crisis. While there is an ongoing debate on the matter, scholars point out that the economic collapse of Venezuela started long before the financial sanctions were imposed in 2018. Moreover, US sanctions target public officials in high positions and state enterprises involved in illegal activities, however, the private sector is still free to conduct its trade.

Why Venezuelan migrants need the world’s attention

To take the example of Peru — the country in the world hosting the second highest number of Venezuelan migrants just after Colombia — the journey from Venezuela to Peru can take several days, even weeks as most migrants travel either on foot or in a bus. The trail is hazardous, many migrants are scammed into buying a bus ticket by travel agents who promise to take them to Ecuador or Peru but leave them in the middle of nowhere. Not only do they have to face the difficult climate of the Andean region, but their safety is also under threat. Some migrants get robbed of all their money and belongings, while criminal organisations have also been taking advantage of this movement. For instance, ELN, the terrorist Colombian guerrilla group, is accused of forcibly recruiting people trying to cross the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

Of the 829,000 migrants in Peru, around 500,000 of them arrived in 2018. In an attempt at integration, in 2017 the government issued them temporary work permits (PTP) to legalise their stay; the PTP gives them the chance of joining the labour market. This decision allowed a large number of migrants to find jobs. However, in October 2018, the government announced the termination of the PTP system and imposed visa restrictions for Venezuelans. Consequently, Venezuelans sought ways to regularise their situation and newly arrived migrants started applying for refugee status. In 2020, Peru received 300,000 asylum applications, becoming the first country in the world with Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Other governments, such as Chile and Ecuador followed the Peruvian model offering temporary work permits to migrants, but they have since also established visa restrictions. The migration corridor begins in the city of Cucuta in Colombia — where Venezuelans start their journey after crossing the border and depending on their destination could end up in Chile or even Argentina. This has prompted illegal migration as Venezuelans trying to escape from a humanitarian crisis try to avoid expensive and exigent visa application processes.

Migrants from Venezuela in Latin America are generally highly educated, and young – 65 percent of them are less than 35 years old – but the majority are in the informal labour market. Although 52 percent of Venezuelan migrants in Peru have a college or technical degree, the vast majority (almost 90 percent) work in the informal sector. In Colombia the situation is similar, with only 25 percent of Venezuelans having signed a job contract. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was some softening of rules wherein Venezuelans that held college degrees in fields that could be deemed “essential”, such as doctors and nurses, could be hired. However, by and large most Venezuelan migrants face hurdles in having their educational degrees recognised by institutions in the host countries.

In addition, the lack of residency status makes it difficult for Venezuelans to find jobs, forcing them to join the informal economy where they are exposed to low wages and exploitation. Despite government efforts, around 58 percent of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia do not have a legal  migrant status; in Ecuador this figure is 68 percent. Although Peru grants asylum seekers a 60-day renewable work permit, it is frequently rejected by employers due to misinformation on regulations or the inability to offer short-term contracts.

One solution to facilitate the integration of migrants into the workforce would be to give them refugee status; this has been the subject of intense debates in the region. The approval rates for refugee status applications are low, as governments follow the 1951 ‘Geneva Convention on Refugees’ whose provisions, among others, require that the asylum seeker is established to be facing dangers to her/his life because of an armed conflict. Nonetheless, there is also the ‘Declaration of Cartagena of 1984’ which expands the definition of ‘refugees’ to include — in addition to those who are fleeing a war/ direct threats to their life from the state — persons whose way of living is threatened by constant violation of human rights and internal conflicts. Defined thus, this definition would apply to Venezuelan refugees. At present, Brazil has been the first country in Latin America to have granted more Venezuelan migrants the refugee status with over 37,000 approvals.

COVID-19 and the Venezuelan migration

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the vulnerability of Venezuelan migrants. As governments in the region imposed strict quarantine regulations, most of the financial aid packages offered by them excluded migrant communities with some exceptions. In addition, migrants face barriers in accessing free public healthcare. Their access to health insurance is also severely limited. For example around 91 percent of Venezuelan migrants in Peru do not have health insurance; in Ecuador, the proportion is even higher at 95 percent. Sadly, the situation across all Latin American countries is similar in that migrants either do not have a job or receive low wages and therefore cannot afford housing and other basic services, let alone, any insurance. There is also the very real prospect of xenophobia, which was already being exhibited prior to the pandemic, rising further in the face of uncertainty and economic hardship.

A Crisis that Deserves Attention

Finally, it is important to note that despite the efforts of governments in host countries to integrate migrants, more support from international organisations is needed. Compared to other migration crises, that of Venezuela has received little attention, let alone, monetary assistance. In the last few years, the international community spent USD 7.4 billion in helping Syrian refugees, in contrast during the same time period, less than a tenth of that amount, USD 580 million was donated to help Venezuelans. In May 2019 a donors’ conference was organised in Madrid, which *pledged* to raise USD 2.5 billion in funds. So far, however, the UNHCR has received only 21.9 percent of the USD 1.4 billion it requires.

The pain and problems that Venezuelan migrants face is as serious as that experienced by other refugees in crisis, such as the Rohingyas of Myanmar, the Syrians, or the South Sudanese. It is imperative that the world take notice of this crisis and gives it the attention it deserves.  Countries around the globe should exert pressure on Venezuela’s leaders to work for a political transition in the country so that migrants can return home, their rights are respected, and their welfare is assiduously looked after.

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Carlos Scull

Carlos Scull

Carlos Scull is a Venezuelan political scientist currently based in Peru. He has a strong interest in international affairs and migration related issues. He has ...

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