Venezuelan exodus demands unified response

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The international community and regional heads of state need to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Latin America due to the disintegrating Venezuelan economy.

On August 18 in the northern Brazilian city of Pacaraima, encampments housing Venezuelan migrants were set upon by angry mobs following reports that a local had been beaten by some among them. Quickly hundreds of Venezuelans fled back across the border, their belongings and camps smoldering behind them.

With Venezuelans desperate to leave their once-rich home, the event is an illustration of a migrant crisis looming in neighboring countries across the region. The UN says that there are 2.3mn Venezuelans living abroad. More than 1.6mn have left the country since 2015, with thousands pouring across the border daily. "People cite lack of food as their main reason for fleeing, with reportedly 1.3mn people suffering from malnourishment," the UN says. 

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There are also severe shortages of medicines in Venezuela, with diseases like diphtheria and measles returning, not to mention hyper-inflation, a deepening recession and overall economic chaos; conditions worthy of a country in the midst of war.

The majority of Venezuelans migrants end up neighboring in Colombia.

"I believe Colombia has taken a smart approach in the sense that instead of marginalizing Venezuelans, they are trying to regularize this immigration that is equivalent to 1mn people, and rising," Ricardo Ávila, editor-in-chief of Colombian business daily Portafolio, told me in a podcast. "Most [Venezuelans] are in a situation in which they can work legally for up to two years and they have access to health and their children will have access to public schooling. The message I have received from the [Iván] Duque administration is that they will continue with that policy."

But other countries have not been as amiable, with both Ecuador and Peru this week announcing more stringent border requirements for Venezuelans.

"Colombia needs more international support because in practical terms we have received more immigrants than Europe during the Syrian crisis or the North African crisis, and the inflow will keep coming," Ávila said.

"As a personal anecdote, the other day I was coming from a place outside Bogotá and I noticed 50 or 60 people walking along the highway and I said this is strange, and then I realized that these are Venezuelans arriving from the border. We are talking about what would probably take you two weeks walking, but since they don't have the money for the bus ticket they... walk."

On Thursday, August 23, the UN called on Latin American countries to continue to allow Venezuelan nationals into their countries on humanitarian grounds. "It remains critical that any new measures continue to allow those in need of international protection to access safety and seek asylum," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.

It is patently clear that the Venezuelan crisis is no longer confined within its borders. Regional, and global, collaboration is needed to counter the unfolding humanitarian tragedy.