The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis: Consequences and Responses

By Laurence Campanella

In 2013, when Nicolàs Maduro rose to power and assumed Venezuela’s presidential office following the passing of socialist mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, he inherited an already tenuous economy that would soon go into freefall. While many Venezuelans attribute the economic crisis to systemic corruption and mismanagement, others, such as Maduro himself, blame the demise on sanctions imposed by the United States

Where did this Crisis Begin?

In the face of mounting economic tensions and the inability to pay for subsidies and welfare programs, Maduro opted to print more money, which in turn resulted in skyrocketing inflation rates, rendering the prices of basic goods prohibitively expensive. In early 2019, approximately 80% of Venezuelan households did not have sufficient access to food, while government stores and grocery stores remain empty. Moreover, hospitals continue to lack medication and crucial resources to treat malnourished children. In an effort to remedy the situation, Maduro attempted to implement price control and fix the currency exchange rate which made imports exorbitantly costly, causing many domestic businesses to shut down. In response, Maduro once again attempted to print more money, effectively setting into motion a cycle of economic devastation.

The economic crisis brought along with it outbreaks of public violence and the emergence of black markets. The informal economy was meant to replace empty government shops as well as the lack of food and basic needs. By 2015, in an attempt to restore stability and centralize governmental power, Maduro deployed “heavily armed police and military units”. However, the operation soon became a “blood bath” according to Velasco, as many officers were engaging in criminality as well. The use of violence on Maduro’s part has also extended to bribing the military by promising them “lucrative prizes” in return for their loyalty to his regime. According to analysts cited by the New York Times, so long as military generals believe that it is more profitable to remain aligned with Maduro, there is little chance that there will be a return to democracy.

Although the crisis in Venezuela began in 2015 as Maduro’s regime moved towards the use of violence to suppress protests and burgeoning informal economies, both of which are by and large the consequence of his policies, the humanitarian disaster is far from over. As of today, approximately 4.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country in an attempt to seek refuge from the crisis—that is, about 16% of Venezuela’s total population. Even if it is still too early to call Venezuela a failed state, the fact of the matter is that government shortages have extended to both water and electricity, while everyday life is characterized by generalized violence to which the state itself is complicit. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), this is the largest population movement that Latin America has seen in recent history. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) approximate that the rate of undernourishment has quadrupled since 2012, while the lives of roughly 300,000 people are at risk because of the limited access to medical treatment.

As the Crisis Ramps up, so do Trends of Xenophobia

While many neighboring states have offered Venezuelan refugees respect and solidarity, as well as met them with affection and generosity, it has not been without the isolated accompaniment of violence, physical and verbal attack, and threats against the refugees. In 2019, Trinidad and Tobago both became the “premier destinations” for Venezuelan refugees, however, in May of the same year, Trinidadian authorities closed their southern port of Cedros (one of the key arrival ports for boats migrating from Venezuela). Consequently, this has also been an important arrival point for many Venezuelans seeking to both enter legally, as well as purchase essential supplies. Moreover, there have also been reports of Trinidadian and Tobagonians officials prohibiting the Venezuelan vessels from crossing their maritime border as well as high numbers of migrant detentions. In an article published by the New Republic, the Dean Rose-Marie Belle Antoine of the University of West Indies St. Augustine Law states that they had been using the state’s maximum-security prisons to house the overflowing numbers of detained refugees.

While systemic responses have not been ideal, neither has public discourse. The refugee crisis has led to outpours of xenophobic anxieties as some have expressed fears that Venezuelan immigrants might threaten their job security or bring down the country’s already stagnant wages. Similar cases of xenophobia have been noted in Colombia, however the cases are also isolated—according to experts, when Venezuela hosted thousands of Colombian immigrants during the “oil boom years” it created a sense of goodwill amongst Colombians towards the country. Despite the rarity of these cases, anti-Venezuelan sentiments are worsening as more refugees migrate out of the country: the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that by the end of 2020, the number of refugees could reach upwards of 6.5 million.

Unfortunately, the xenophobia targeted towards Venezuelan refugees has also been a product of politically charged speeches laden in anti-migrant rhetoric. Esther Saavedra, a Peruvian pro-Fujimori deputy exclaimed that Venezuelans must leave Peru, while Zulay Rodriguez, a congresswoman from Panama, discredited Venezuelan refugees in her speech referring to a bill which proposed the potential transformation of the country’s immigration laws. Political rhetoric targeting the vulnerable not only undermines the American Convention on Human Rights, it also creates a dangerous precedent that has arguably led to the protests against Venezuelan refugees in states such as Ecuador, Panama, Brazil and Peru. This kind of rhetoric, coupled with the diffusion of misinformation about Venezuelan migrants, promotes a climate that exacerbates the risks posed towards refugees from angry locals.  

Brazil has admitted tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees and the federal government continues to state that the trend is not likely to end, yet local officials warn that Brazil’s “open-door policy is unsustainable,” as the country’s education and healthcare systems are overwhelmed. As resources become increasingly strained, tensions rise; in 2018, Venezuelan immigration camps were attacked in Pacaraima by locals after a merchant accused a refugee of inciting aggression towards him, which led to an outbreak of violence which only ended after the deployment of the Brazilian army to control the situation. In Mexico, for example, there have been reports of Venezuelan migrants being denied entry despite possessing all requisite documentation. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Peruvian Studies, 73% of participating Peruvians disagree “with the arrival of Venezuelans to their country,” while only 14% report having “a close relationship with these foreigners.”

The Systemic Consequences of the Refugee Crisis

These xenophobic tendencies are only intensified by the systemic challenges the refugee crisis presents. Colombia’s finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla estimates that the annual cost of educating, housing and attending to the health of Venezuelan migrants ranges from about 0.4% to 0.8% of the GDP; in comparison, research suggests that the influx of Venezuelans may bring about “long-term benefit[s] to economic growth”. Despite potential growth in the future, Eduardo Stein, joint special representative for Venezuelan migrants and refugees for the UNHCR, states that “National budgets are exhausted and institutional capacity is completely overwhelmed by the crisis”. Even prior to the refugee crisis, educational infrastructure in Peru was strained and out of date, but now because of the recent influx of Venezuelan migrants (entering public school classes rose from 26, 000 in 2018 to 34, 000 in 2019), the government is struggling to accommodate so many new pupils with so few resources. In Colombia in particular, the cost of providing free education to Venezuelan children costs about $160 million annually. Both the Human Rights Watch and John Hopkins University have stated that cases of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and hepatitis have spiked in Colombia in areas bordering Venezuela, meaning not only are refugees in grave need of severe medical assistance, but the spread of such diseases only risks to further instantiate negative perception of the migrants.    

The fears that arise out of xenophobic sentiments often have a lot more to do with underlying prejudices—such as generalized perceptions of otherness, anxieties regarding economic well-being, and the implicit assumption that diversity risks to interrupt national unity and therefore stability—rather than actual data. In cases such as these, where there is a legitimate reason to question the infrastructural challenges that the Venezuelan refugees pose to neighbouring states, it is important to distinguish between people’s genuine concern and desire to find solutions, from the disdain and violence brewing against Venezuelan refugees fleeing the precarity and violence of their home. 

Edited by Naya Sophia Moser


Photo credits: “Refugees on the Hungarian M1 highway on their march towards the Austrian border” by photog_at. Published 4th of September, 2015. This work was sourced under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. No changes were made.

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