If the exodus continues, the staggering amount of Venezuelan refugees spread throughout the Western Hemisphere could eclipse the total of 6 million that have fled from war in Syria.
Numerous countries and regions across the globe are experiencing the consequences of mass migration waves due to violent conflicts, food insecurity, climate change and economic crisis. More specifically, countries like Syria and Venezuela are remarkable examples of migratory crises currently unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as remarkable, however, has been the struggle faced by neighboring governments in dealing with the effects that the refugee influx has had on the domestic political landscape of the destination countries.
Over the last five years, an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country in what has now become South America’s largest migratory crisis in the modern era. Domestically, Venezuela is suffering from a historic inflation that reached 200,000% between August 2017 and August 2018, rendering the local currency, the bolivar, effectively worthless. Additionally, massive food shortages due to issues with the commercial supply chain and foreign exchange have led to what is referred to as the “Maduro diet,” by which the average person living in Venezuela has lost approximately 20 pounds in weight over the last few years. Therefore, scores of desperate Venezuelans decide to undertake a days-long journey, in many cases by foot, leaving behind their country in search of the most basic necessities like food and medicine.
Venezuelans have been departing their country for almost two decades now. The first wave of emigration consisted of the country’s elite, who started leaving Venezuela when the leftist President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 and changed the constitution. The second wave, which expanded to include larger sectors of the country’s middle class and cultural sector, came in 2006, when Chavez was re-elected for a third term. Then, the migratory wave of recent years was set off after the passing of Chavez in 2013, the following ascension of Nicolás Maduro to the country’s presidency and the dramatic decrease in international oil prices — oil being the backbone of Venezuela’s economy.
While those who left because of Chavez were mostly members of the country’s aristocracy and business elite, the resounding failure of the so-called Bolivarian project under the leadership of President Maduro has forced working-class Venezuelans to flee in the most dramatic of circumstances. The fact that working and middle-class families are walking from all corners of Venezuela toward the Colombian and Brazilian borders, mainly to the international bridges that connect with the city of Cúcuta, is particularly important because these social groups previously formed the bedrock of the Chavista movement.
Tragically, the government that they once supported turns its back on them today, and it is up to international institutions — such as the International Organization for Migration, the Organization of American States, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency — to record their stories and provide them with assistance. No official aid or information has been given by the Venezuelan government despite thousands of frontier crossings being reported every day.
Over the last several years, the brunt of the Venezuelan crisis has fallen on the shoulders of neighboring Colombia. Nevertheless, this issue affects most countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, including Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and Peru.
Colombia — the frontline of the Venezuelan migrant crisis given the 2,341 kilometers of shared border between the two countries — has welcomed approximately 1 million migrants from its struggling neighbor in recent years. However, Colombia’s open arms policy, which has included the issuing of special humanitarian visas and work permits, has substantially transformed the social landscape of major cities such as Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, Cali, Medellín and the capital Bogotá. The sudden introduction of a million economic migrants into Colombia has led to a spike in informal work, has depressed wages in major cities, stressed the country’s health-care system and has unfortunately led to an increase in criminal activities such as petty theft, human trafficking, smuggling and underage prostitution.
Certainly, many Venezuelan migrants choose to stay in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador because they have family in these countries. They expect that they will be able to return home soon and often don’t have the resources to go any further, finding comfort in the cultural similarities shared by all four countries. For instance, Peru is currently estimated to be hosting 400,000 Venezuelans, while Ecuador has taken in a further 200,000 amongst its population of just 15 million.
Nevertheless, many refugees seek to continue on to other destinations, such as Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, the United States or even Europe. Responding to this reality, many of the affected countries have restricted the entry of Venezuelans into their territory. Brazil’s government, for instance, has reinforced its border controls and frontier security. Panama, Peru and Ecuador have also tightened their border security and have deported Venezuelan migrants that enter the country illegally. Meanwhile, important public figures in the region and the world, such as Pope Francis, have exhorted churches, civil society and charitable organizations to aid migrants and refugees, particularly those suffering from severe malnutrition and chronic illnesses.
In recent weeks, with the accession of Ivan Duque to Colombia’s presidency, the rhetoric against Caracas has become increasingly assertive. Political leaders throughout the region, from Argentina’s President Macri to Ecuador’s President Moreno, have intensified the international campaign to relocate the region’s refugees according to the capacities of each country and condemn the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela. Simultaneously, in a burden-sharing effort, most of the countries have agreed to grant special visas and work permits to those Venezuelans who have legally settled within their territory.
Sharing the Burden
The economic and social stress that has been set off by the amount of Venezuelan migrants currently working below the minimum wage throughout Colombia’s and Peru’s labor market is unsustainable. Therefore, working groups have been organized through multilateral institutions, such as the Andean Community and the OAS, specifically to discuss burden sharing when it comes to aiding Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Thus far, the Lima Group has made some progress on this issue as countries negotiate quotas of how many of the millions Venezuelan migrants they are willing to welcome into their country. If the exodus continues, the staggering amount of Venezuelan refugees spread throughout the Western Hemisphere could eclipse the total of 6 million that have fled from war in Syria.
Unfortunately, the magnitude of the Venezuelan migrant wave has even led to small outbreaks of xenophobia in some parts of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. However, leading figures in the region do not hesitate to remind Colombians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians that not too long ago, it was them who fled to oil-rich Venezuela in search of better opportunities. At this moment, the future of Venezuela remains uncertain and, at least for now, countries throughout the region have maintained an open doors policy toward migrants. Nevertheless, at the current pace of migration, the impatience of politicians in the region might lead some of them to close borders.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the Maduro regime is in denial and looks the other way as the amount of abandoned houses and apartments throughout major cities has skyrocketed due to migration and hyperinflation. The administration has also denied the veracity of the dramatic footage recorded by journalists of thousands of migrants crossing the frontier. President Maduro is so tone-deaf to this reality and defiant of international pressure that he was recently shown enjoying a sumptuous steak cooked by a celebrity chef during a stop-over in Turkey, the video unleashing immediate condemnation across the world.
Yet in spite of his incompetent and authoritative leadership, Maduro has proven to be extremely resilient. He has managed to co-opt the national military through a web of corruption and drug trafficking, has played on the weaknesses of a divided political opposition, and has maintained political ties with countries like China, Russia and Turkey. Outside of Venezuela, the exiled opposition struggles to present a unified front, with negotiations breaking down on several occasions. And no one seems to truly want a foreign military intervention — at least for the time being.
*[Updated: October 16, 2018, at 22:00 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.