Thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the unstable government of Nicolás Maduro, migrating to Latin American countries. According to Eric L. Olson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, the exodus is considered the worst migration crisis in the region in the last 50 years. Several countries face housing, xenophobia, and organized crime challenges, created by the massive migration wave.
According to the United Nations (UN), 2.3 million Venezuelans live abroad and 1.6 million have left since 2015, when the crisis worsened under Maduro’s rule. Colombia is the main destination, where more than a million Venezuelans live. Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, and Brazil also face substantial migration flows.
According to Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of the non-governmental organization Venezuelan Program of Education-Action on Human Rights, the situation is not new. “It intensified in the last several months due to economic and social problems the country is going through,” he told Diálogo.
“People are leaving Venezuela not only because of political reasons; they also escape civil insecurity and the economic crisis,” Uzcátegui said. “There were five migration waves: first, businesspeople; second, middle-class dissidents; third, political refugees; fourth, lower-class people; and most recently, quite particular, former government officials and supporters of Chavism.”
Faced with the situation, the region must respond to the immediate challenge of sheltering Venezuelans and ensuring access to basic health and protection. “Countries of the region put into place several mechanisms to regularize the situation of Venezuelan migrants, so they can access basic services, such as health, education, and work,” Olga Sarrado, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Venezuela, told Diálogo. “Now, more than 727,000 Venezuelans hold a permit that regularizes their stay in the host nation. Since 2014, more than 336,000 Venezuelans sought asylum around the world.”
Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador request a Venezuelan passport or a special permit to enter and remain on their soil. To enter Chile and Panama, Venezuelan migrants need a visa issued by a consulate. Brazil only requires an ID, although Brazilian authorities have already considered restricting Venezuelans’ entry.
Maduro’s government denies the emergency and organized staged repatriations on TV. In late August, Venezuelan Minister of Communication Jorge Rodríguez told the press that the crisis in Venezuela was “fake news spread by xenophobic, racist governments.”
Exposed to organized crime
Sarrado and Uzcátegui agree that one of the main concerns Venezuelan migration brings to the region is criminal gangs trying to take advantage of the dire situation. Uzcátegui explained that problems start when Venezuelans try to obtain a passport to leave the country, as the black market takes advantage of the difficulty to obtain legal documents. “Leaving without a passport makes it difficult to get to any country, and nowadays Venezuelans leave without a valid passport, because the chain of corruption prevents them from getting one legally. They have to buy passports on the black market at prices ranging from $800 to $1,200,” he said.
Venezuelans, once out of the country with or without passports, continue to fall prey to organized crime. UNHCR detected networks linked to human trafficking and sexual exploitation that take advantage of the migrants’ vulnerable situation, Sarrado said. “Venezuelans, especially those with irregular situations, are exposed to great risks such as human trafficking, sexual and labor exploitation, or recruitment by illegal groups,” he said.
Xenophobia and social tension
The spread of xenophobia and acts of violence are other challenges Venezuelans face in host nations. Discrimination can be flagrant, especially when the wave of arrivals is concentrated in areas with a sluggish economy.
In August 2018, people in the border state of Roraima, Brazil, through which most Venezuelans enter the country, attacked a makeshift camp of about 2,000 immigrants. The attackers were neighbors claiming that four Venezuelans had hit and robbed a Brazilian shopkeeper.
In Peru, attacks against Venezuelans increased. Derogatory name-calling on social media and in the streets is the main form of aggression against migrants who arrive in the Andean country.
“These retaliations happened in similar contexts, and could be mitigated if policies to welcome immigrants and an understanding of why they cannot stay in their country exist,” said Uzcátegui. “These cases could be contained if there were enough information available for citizens on the seriousness of the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela, information that would awaken solidarity. But governments of receiving nations should also guarantee that formal inclusion offers more advantages than maintaining an irregular status, including no repatriation, access to documentation and education, health, and employment,” he concluded.