Venezuela's unrest risks creating a South American refugee crisis

Brazil, Colombia and even Peru are feeling the strain of taking in thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country.

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Venezuela is in a tail spin. After four months of protest, more than 100 deaths, and thousands of people imprisoned, there appears to be no end in sight to the problems assailing the oil-rich country. The political unrest that has taken on a violent element, in combination with a scarcity of vital supplies, has sent Venezuelans running from their homeland.

Discontent at President Nicolas Maduro was caused primarily by shortages of food and later, medical supplies, three years ago. Under attack, Maduro planned the formation of a new assembly charged with rewriting the country’s constitution, with members voted for by the Venezuelan people in elections l;ast Sunday. Decried by opposition politicians - and subsequently boycotted - as an attempt to dismantle their country’s democracy, the president’s unfaltering stance has prompted rising unrest. 

Since 2014, when the global oil market crashed and fruitless, hours-long queues for shops hit the news, Venezuelans have been fleeing their homeland in droves. Unable to find food and other necessities as supermarket aisles stay empty, many have had little choice but to leave what was once Latin America’s richest country.

Brazil is struggling to cope as its porous border becomes a lifeline for people trying to find food and medical aid. Brazilian border police estimate that some 77,000 Venezuelans fled to the country between 2015 and 2016. While many are keen to return to their homeland, 15,000 have filed asylum claims in 2017 so far, with 150 new claims being received every day that the crisis continues.

For Latin America’s giant, the demand is simply too great. Brazil has not updated its national asylum system since 1997, when it answered 500 requests per year. Combined with problems at home, the sudden influx has left Brazil floundering and stranded Venezuelans in danger. Human Rights Watch reports that Venezuelan women fleeing to Brazil run the risk of being kidnapped, raped, and trafficked into the sex trade. Elsewhere, Venezuelans are forced to live on the streets in improvised shelters, where they contract diseases associated with poor living. 

Brazil has been criticised for what some view as a lacklustre response, unfair, perhaps, for a country that is also experiencing its share of political unrest. The sudden demands being placed on Brazilian public services in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state which borders Venezuela, are large. Boa Vista’s general hospital treated 1,815 Venezuelans in 2016, three times higher than the previous year. For 2017, the hospital reports treating 300 Venezuelans a month. 

Venezuelans are not just fleeing to Brazil, either. Thousands have also looked to neighbouring Colombia as an escape route. Tens of thousands have entered Colombia via the border town of Cucuta. Those who can find work, no matter how menial, say they will stay rather than return home.

In April, the Colombian government began issuing Venezuelan prostitutes with work visas after Colombia's constitutional court ruled mass deportations were a violation of human rights. In particular, the court said that it made its decision based on the reasons for the sex-workers' arrival, and what they would face if returned to Venezuela. In the wake of the vote on Sunday, which the Colombian government has declined to recognise, Colombia also said it would extend the visas for 150,000 Venezuelans who had overstayed their initial entry permits. 

Even Peru, which does not share a border with Venezuela, is making room to accommodate members of the beleaguered nation’s diaspora. At the direction of President Pedro Kuczynski, Peruvian immigration authorities have provided year-long residency visas to some 11,000 Venezuelans, giving them the right to work, live, and access public services in Peru. For its actions, Peru has been labelled “an example of the region”, by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the humanitarian arm of the Organisation of American States (OAS), which also called on countries across Latin America to provide shelter for Venezuelans who have made the difficult decision to leave their country. 

As unrest continues, it is reasonable to expect that increasing numbers of Venezuelans will take the decision to leave their country. This will mean more strain placed on Brazilian states bordering Venezuela, as well as Colombia, which is in the midst of administering the peace process with former rebel group the Farc. While international attention is captivated by the goings on within Venezuela’s borders, and especially on the streets of Caracas, it will be necessary for the international community to also pay more to the needs of those many thousands who are searching for new lives outside the country.

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona.

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