- Venezuela’s economic, political, and social turmoil is deepening.
- Those crises have spurred massive waves of migration, as Venezuelans leave to look for relief.
- Countries in the region are trying to adjust to the influx – and prepare for what’s next in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s deepening turmoil has spurred mass migration to the rest of the region, and now countries straining to deal with arriving migrants are taking steps to address the influx.
On February 8 in Cucuta, a border city that has become a hub for migrants, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced stricter migration controls and the deployment 3,000 security personnel to control hundreds of crossing points along the countries’ 1,370-mile shared border.
A new migration unit will also patrol public areas where displaced Venezuelans gather, help them get oriented, and address problems related to their arrival and the precarious conditions they face, like prostitution. Venezuelans in the country will be required to register with Colombian officials.
“Colombia has never lived a situation like the one we are encountering today,” Santos said. Colombian immigration officials say there are nearly 600,000 Venezuelans in the country – double the number six months ago. Venezuelan groups and officials in border cities say it could be higher.
“This is a tragedy,” Santos added. “I want to repeat to President Maduro – this is the result of your policies. It is not the fault of Colombians, and it’s the result of your refusal to receive humanitarian aid.”
Venezuela’s economy continues to unravel. Inflation is expected to hit 13,000% this year. Rampant shortages leave store empty, and many hospitals are ill-equipped to treat even basic problems. Malnutrition is rising, and some parents who are unable to feed their children have turned them over to orphanages. Violence is pervasive, and security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and other abuses.
Despite broad unpopularity, President Nicolas Maduro is expected to retain power in a April 22 election under conditions the US and others say are stacked against the opposition.
Polling in late 2016 and early 2017 found 35.3% of Venezuelans wanted to leave in the next three years – nearly triple the 12% who said the same in 2014. A December poll by a Venezuelan firm found 40% of respondents wanted to leave.
There are now large Venezuelan expatriate communities in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. A border crossing in southern Colombia saw the number of Venezuelans going to Ecuador surge from 32,000 in 2016 to 231,000 in 2017.
An International Organisation for Migration report found more than 629,000 Venezuelans living in nine major South American cities in 2017 – up from just 85,000 in 2015.
“Venezuela … I wouldn’t wish it on even my worst enemy,” Luis Alfredo Rivas, a 32-year-old Venezuelan told El Nuevo Herald just after he arrived in Bogota earlier this month. “My plan is to be here, to work and to move ahead if I can, to bring my family over, too, to get them out of that hell.”
‘I don’t have a happy ending’
Venezuela took in more than a million Colombians during a the latter country’s half-century civil conflict, and Colombia is now struggling to care for Venezuelans as it nurtures a nascent peace and deals with ongoing security challenges – all while managing a weak economy.
“Venezuela was very generous to Colombia when Colombians went in search of a better life,” Santos said in Cucuta. “We should also be generous to Venezuela.” He asked his countrymen to avoid hostility, but Venezuelans’ growing presence has been a source of frustration.
“We also have a problem within our population, because we almost have a two-digit unemployment figure,” Maria Isabel Nieto Jaramillo, Colombia’s consul general in New York City, said during an event at the Proskauer law firm this month. “We had a situation with our own [countrymen] not wanting many of the Venezuelans to come to [our] country and being hostile.”
Some Venezuelan professionals have found jobs, but many there illegally are unable to obtain official status allowing them to work. Some live on the streets and work for scant pay in the informal economy.
“They have increased unemployment and they have taken jobs at lower wages,” Mauricio Franco, who leads Cucuta’s response to the migration, told The Wall Street Journal. “We don’t have opportunities for them.”
“It is a fact that the Venezuelans are taking jobs [from] Colombians,” Nieto Jaramillo said. But, she added, the government and civil-society groups have had success informing Colombians of the situation Venezuelans face.
“It’s showing that these people that are coming … are people that are in need,” she added. “It’s more like a humanitarian way of looking at it.”
“We’re taking the Venezuelans that are very poor people. We’re taking them to shelters, because we don’t want … the Colombian citizens of those places to feel that they’re being … overwhelmed,” Nieto Jaramillo said. “It’s an ongoing crisis at the moment, so I don’t have a happy ending, but still, we’re working on it.”
‘This is a humanitarian drama’
Colombia is not alone in its efforts to deal with an influx of Venezuelans.
Brazilian Defence Minister Raul Jungmann, speaking in the northern border state of Roraima last week, said his government would send more troops to the area, relocate tens of thousands of Venezuelans to other parts of Brazil, and take a census of the Venezuelans who have resettled there.
Venezuelans in Roraima have put considerable strain on hospitals and social services and angered locals, especially in the capital, Boa Vista, where the mayor says 40,000 Venezuelans have relocated, many living on the streets.
Early on February 8, two gasoline bombs were thrown into houses in the city where Venezuelan migrants were sleeping. The attack gave a 3-year-old girl second-degree burns and injured her parents. Days earlier, a woman in the same neighbourhood was burned in a similar attack.
“This is a humanitarian drama. The Venezuelans are being expelled from their country by hunger and the lack of jobs and medicine,” Jungmann said after meeting with local officials.
In Peru, which said last year it would issue more permits for Venezuelans to work and study there, a Venezuelan migrant selling pastries on a public bus came to blows with a Peruvian man who said Venezuelans fleeing their country were like “rats.”
‘What happens when Maduro falls?’
Colombia and Venezuela have had contentious relations in recent years, and Maduro has shuttered the border several times since 2015 to crack down on crime and ward off what he claimed was interference from Colombia.
Suggestions by President Donald Trump and other US officials of military action, both internal and external, against Maduro have also drawn rebuke, and Venezuelan officials have recently warned of a looming invasion by Colombia.
Bogota called those fears “ridiculous.” It has also contracted international lending agencies about setting up a financial rescue plan for Venezuela if Maduro leaves power.
“What happens when Maduro falls? We should not improvise. There should be a plan because Venezuela will require financial support,” Colombian Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told Reuters this week, estimating Venezuela would need about $US60 billion in loans under a new government and economic policies.
During a visit to Colombia last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was “heartbroken” to see the conditions faced by Venezuelans and added that the US could redirect humanitarian funds meant for Venezuela to Colombia.
“Our ability to provide that aid to Venezuela has not been easy because of the situation, so we’re going to look at what we have available, and some of that may be redirected to serve Venezuelans … in Colombia,” Tillerson said on February 6. “We’ll be in consultation with the president and his team as to whether what we are able to do would be useful. And we recognise that it is putting a burden on Colombia as well.”