19 November 2018

Venezuelan Exodus – a continent-wide refugee crisis with no end in sight

Venezuela’s refugee crisis is a major challenge not only to the legitimacy of the country’s government, but also puts pressure on South American governments to formulate a common policy as nearly three million Venezuela refugees, and counting, have left their homeland.

Increasingly isolated from the global economy, crippled by shortages that have dismantled the safety net and facing growing unrest at home, Venezuelans are increasingly voting with their feet and leaving. While most of the country’s neighbours would welcome the demise of President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, they are more presently occupied in welcoming millions of displaced people from it.

The journey is, for those without means, long and potentially deadly. The death toll within this mass exodus is not well understood; an Associated Press investigation found that at least 3,410 Venezuelans have gone missing or been declared dead since 2015. The sea route into the Caribbean and mountainous overland paths in the Andes have claimed lives. The journey also entails basic health and personal safety risks at every stage, and authorities in neighbouring countries are bracing for possible outbreaks of communicable diseases among refugees due to the resurgence of such ailments in Venezuela as the healthcare system collapses.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that over 2.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015. The largest movement of people has been into neighbouring Colombia; nearly one million Venezuelans have entered Colombia and after much reluctance, refugee camps are being built to house them. Hundreds of thousands more do not remain in Colombia, however, and move on foot or by bus to Peru (500,000) and Ecuador (220,000), which have imposed visa restrictions in response. Tens of thousands more have gone on to Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Argentina, Panama, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and other countries.

Some 100,000 people have also gone by boat to neighbouring island nations including Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao – prompting travel bans by the Venezuelan government, ostensibly due to black market activities. Fully aware of its diminishing control, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is increasingly demanding shows of loyalty for the distribution of basic goods and services. The new "fatherland card" helps officials track cardholders’ level of political participation and factors this in to allocating state-subsidised housing, food and healthcare. This approach has so far failed to stop regular anti-government rallies and strikes by public sector employees, though, and having a clean bill of political health does not guarantee access to essentials.

While not one of the major drivers of migration, rising crime and militancy have further unsettled Venezuelan society. Neighbouring countries have blamed Venezuelan people smugglers for clashes along their borders. But it is also true that criminal gangs and militant groups are entering a weakened Venezuela, as evidenced by deadly cross-border attacks from the Colombia-based National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels in Amazonas and Bolívar states. Domestically, attacks targeting security forces have been on the uptick, both by opportunistic criminals and by anti-government paramilitaries affiliated with the so-called ‘National Movement of Soldiers in T-Shirts’ who have sought foreign support to overthrow President Maduro, without success.

Some regional leaders do wish for President Maduro’s downfall at the hands of domestic rivals, in part due to his alleged backing of leftist guerrillas in their countries even as more Venezuelan refugees arrive daily. The most contentious issue is not public health concerns or black market profits or crime syndicate violence, though: it is the simple presence of so many people. Since August, disturbances involving Venezuelan refugees and local residents in Brazil’s Roraima state have led to riots, driving hundreds back over the border into Venezuela even though relatively few Venezuelans have entered Brazil (85,000). Coordination among all of the countries affected by the crisis has been minimal. States of emergency have been declared on Peru and Ecuador’s borders with Colombia – neither country borders Venezuela itself – due to the transit of Venezuelan refugees through Colombia to their territories.

The governments of Brazil, Colombia and the United States (US) have periodically denied media reports that they are actively considering a military option for Venezuela. Such intervention would almost inevitably result in making the refugee crisis a permanent feature of the region’s political life for years to come. In the absence of significant domestic policy changes under President Maduro, or a massive militarisation of South American borders to deny Venezuelan refugees free movement, thousands of people will continue to leave the country daily. The only real question is whether the patience and hospitality of Venezuela’s neighbours gives out before President Maduro’s rule or the Venezuelan economy does.

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