Student and alumni views

As Venezuelans leave, neighbouring countries need collective, responsible action

 “Why has no-one declared a humanitarian crisis?”asks MPP student Daniel Peña Ortiz in The Governance Post.

Latin America is facing its biggest migration crisis in history, due to the overflow of Venezuelans escaping from the economic, political and social crisis fueled by Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian regime. Even as tensions in the region are rising, with xenophobic reactions and deportations in countries hosting refugees, the Organization of the American States – the continent’s multilateral organization – has failed to respond and provide solutions to the ongoing crisis. Consequently, governments are responding at an individual level with temporary actions that may be as unlikely to solve the problems as Hugo Chávez is to be re-born a bird (Maduro in 2013 said that Chavez gave his blessing through a small bird on the first day of his official campaign for the presidency).

President Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s successor, has led Venezuela to a previously unthinkable point of desperation. Economic mismanagement has led Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, to the world’s highest inflation rate and, more concretely, induced severe levels of poverty and malnutrition among the population. Simultaneously, Maduro’s government has used torture and incarceration to stifle political opponents and journalists, generating a wave of political asylum seekers, many of whom have fled to the US, and an overflow of Venezuelan migrants throughout Latin America.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1 million Venezuelans have left their country over the past two years. Many Venezuelans have left the continent, leading to prominent diaspora groups in cities such as Miami and Madrid. But the majority of Venezuelan migrants have stayed in South America, undertaking journeys of more than 2000 kilometers to reach Perú, Chile, Argentina and even Uruguay.

Just last year, Peru’s Ministry of the Interior estimated that almost 400,000 Venezuelans settled within the country. This past month, the Peruvian government reported that the record for single-day entry of Venezuelans was broken on 11 August with 5,100 new migrants. Moreover, the Ecuadorian government has estimated that at least one million Venezuelans have crossed the border, though only a quarter remained in the country – approximately 250,000. Overall, the crisis has been most acute in Colombia, which shares a 2,200-kilometer border with Venezuela and is already hosting more than one million Venezuelans. Colombia continues to receive almost 4,000 refugees per day.

While Venezuela continues to crumble, and outward migration flows rise, its neighbours have yet to decide upon a common response to the crisis. At the beginning of the crisis some countries were willing to help those crossing into their territory. But as the crisis has continued, countries have changed their policies and are now abruptly closing their borders.

Peru started issuing temporary work permits, which gave Venezuelans with no criminal record who had entered the country legally, the right to work for a year with the possibility to apply for an extension. Likewise, Colombia's former President Juan Manuel Santos began issuing Special Residence Permits, a temporary permit granted exclusively to Venezuelans who have overstayed their visas and entered the country with a valid passport stamped at the border. President Temer of Brazil declared a state of emergency after a visit to his country’s border with Venezuela, and promised $20 million plus a new field hospital and four shelters to ease the effects of the crisis.

As long as the Venezuelan President continues to manage the country as his personal bank account, desperation, starvation and scarcity will keep motivating Venezuelans to flee in search of a better home. On 18 August, President Maduro announced a new package of economic measures to tackle the “imperialist offensive” against the people of Venezuela.  One of the measures was to remove five zeros from prices in response to hyperinflation that has made cash increasingly worthless.  On the same day, neighbouring countries announced new set of entry requirements for Venezuelans migrants, showing that their patience for the Maduro regime’s haphazard policies has run dry.

For instance, since 18 August, Ecuador and Peru imposed passport requirements for Venezuelan migrants, leaving hundreds stuck at the Colombia-Ecuador border. This is ineffective, however, as it will only increase migrants’ vulnerability to human trafficking by smugglers and to irregular crossing points where their security is at risk.  Many of the Venezuelan migrants do not have passports due to a chronic shortage as domestic migration services, which have become increasingly politicised. Unfortunately, this wave of new entry requirements for Venezuelan migrants has not been limited to Peru and Ecuador. In 2017, Panama imposed new visa requirements on Venezuelans, making it more difficult for economic migrants and asylum seekers to enter the country. In January 2018, almost 308 Venezuelans were expelled or agreed to go home when faced with deportation from Panama. It is naive to believe that requiring a passport will diminish the migratory flow of Venezuelans; this measure will only increase clandestine migration and human trafficking.

Latin American countries are struggling as they act alone, but why has no one declared this a regional humanitarian crisis? A textbook case of a collective action problem, it is in large part due to the fact that no country in the region is prepared to lead efforts to solve a problem of such magnitude, ultimately leaving the crisis to be dealt with at the regional level.

On one hand, how much worse does the situation have to get in to compel the Organization of American States – the world’s oldest regional organisation – to act with purpose? Thus far, the OAS has failed to tackle the crisis at an early stage, providing effective and immediate humanitarian aid to those fleeing Venezuela. There is no doubt that political dialogue between OAS members is needed for tangible solutions. All member states should contribute for immediate attention and have quotas for accepting Venezuelan migrants. Yet, it is hard to expect the OAS to coordinate when it lacks fully binding authority. Nevertheless, it is still the sole multilateral body of the region and, as such, the OAS should take the lead and reaffirm its raison d’être.

In the meantime, the move by Peru and Ecuador to hinder the entrance of Venezuelans has now mainly affected Colombia, as migrants now seek to traverse its comparatively porous border. Consequently, Colombia has been forced to continue taking the lead on the issue at the regional and international level while providing immediate and coordinated measures to the Venezuelans migrants within its territory. The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has put together inter-institutional programmes for Venezuelans in the country including health, education, and access to other state services. In addition, Colombia has made its entry requirements flexible and has sought innovative mechanisms to regulate migrants in the country. It has also invited the migration authorities of Peru and Ecuador to have a meeting to search for coordinated measures to improve the situation along their shared borders.

As a final remark, this is a humanitarian crisis. Venezuelan migrants are arriving sleepless at the borders after several days of risky journey in precarious conditions. We must keep in mind that Venezuelans are not fleeing into Peru just because Huancaina chicken is delicious or because they want to visit Machu Picchu, they are running away from starvation, scarcity and violence. It is worth remembering when Colombians escaped from civil war, or when Peruvians fled from the economic instability under the Fujimori regime, or when Chileans ran away from the Pinochet dictatorship in search of refuge that many of them sought shelter in the oil-rich country of the continent: Venezuela, which was once a land of opportunity.

Daniel Peña Ortiz is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Hertie School. Daniel has a background in Public Administration and International Relations. He has worked as a consultant in the Colombian public and private sector. Currently, Daniel is working at the GIZ Country Office for Sierra Leone and Liberia. He is interested in development policy making for poverty alleviation, youth employment, and rural development.

Originally published in The Governance Post.