By: Liana Mitlyng Day, Reporter
Photo Credit: Institute for the Study of International Migration
On Tuesday, September 19, 2018 the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Georgetown’s own Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) hosted a panel discussion on the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela, primarily focused on the massive and escalating exodus of Venezuelans into Colombia, Brazil, and other countries in South America. Speakers included Dr. Ligia Bolivar, sociologist and Director of the Center for Human Rights at Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andres Bello; Ms. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at WOLA; Mr. Luis Carlos Rodríguez, representing Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados para Latinoamérica y el Caribe (SJR LAC); Mr. Geoff Ramsey, Assistant Director for Venezuela at WOLA; Mr. Francisco Quintana, Program Director at the Center for Justice and International Law; and Mr. Chris Canalan, Director of Global Policy Development at Soros Fund Management, who moderated the discussion.
The event oscillated comfortably between Spanish and English, with earpiece interpretation for those who needed them. Dr. Bolivar began the discussion with a sobering overview of the current crisis. Citing research by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Venezuelans near the border listed lack of security, food, income, and access to healthcare as the primary reasons they were leaving the country. She underscored that few Venezuelans remarked that they were leaving due to political persecution, although peaks of migration from Venezuela have coincided with political events. Local and international NGOs report that a widespread humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Venezuela, despite the recent August 2018 UNHCR report that described Venezuela’s outflow as primarily due to the economic crisis rather than political reasons.
Dr. Bolivar insisted that Venezuela does not have a history of widespread emigration. The scale of the exodus, the diversity of groups fleeing, and the drivers of their emigration all make the current situation unprecedented. Segments of the population who claimed that they would never leave the country have finally been pushed to flee; Dr. Bolivar added that this demonstrates that everyone has a breaking point, and more and more Venezuelans are reaching that point. Dr. Bolivar also cautioned that Venezuela’s is a structural crisis, and those who leave will not necessarily be able to return to the country soon, if ever. Receiving countries need to be prepared for a long-term crisis, and either permanent or long-lasting solutions for refugees.
Compounding the migration chaos is a massive administrative backlog. Dr. Bolivar noted there’s currently a more than two-year delay for Venezuelans applying for passports and other personal identification documents. Many countries to which Venezuelans are fleeing now require passports in order to for legal entry. This means that imperiled Venezuelans who have no choice but to flee immediately will likely move from insecurity in one country to another. Dr. Bolivar also noted that this backlog even endangers expat Venezuelans currently living and working abroad in other relatively safe countries. Without valid passports, they are at risk of being stuck in limbo where they can neither travel internationally nor renew their status or employment authorization in the countries where they reside.
Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Jesuit NGO that accompanies and advocates on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, has offices throughout South America. As a result, Mr. Rodríguez says they’ve had far-reaching contact with migrants departing Venezuela. He explained that Venezuelans have left the country in phases, with each phase marked by different characteristics. The current groups of migrants leaving are very vulnerable populations, at “a critical point” as many of the individuals leaving had not planned to flee – either because they are very ill, have young children, or are otherwise compromised. Many of those leaving the country now have also spent the entirety of their lives in Venezuela. He also touched upon widespread administrative issues, pointing out that the knowledge we have of migrants primarily consists of those passing through official checkpoints – and does not include the large number that are passing through the porous border via trails in more dangerous areas.
The public health elements of the crisis are particularly distressing. As Mr. Rodríguez noted, a large portion of refugees leaving have been forced to flee due to inadequate health resources in Venezuela. Many of these refugees already have compromised immune systems from existing illnesses making the hardships of the journey to neighboring countries even more difficult. Children in particular are developing grave illnesses en route, including diseases that are otherwise rare, like measles, and bringing them to the countries where they land. Mr. Rodríguez also noted that armed actors in border areas are filling the service gaps left by the Venezuelan and bordering governments, creating an acute danger of forced recruitment or human trafficking for migrants.
Ms. Sánchez-Garzoli described the Colombian response to Venezuelan migrants as welcoming, but the country has been blindsided by the sudden and very large numbers of fleeing Venezuelans. The influx of migrants is proving a huge challenge to the formal labor market in Colombia’s Norte De Santander and La Guajira, where the vast majority of Venezuelans are heading. These two regions are already struggling to provide services, with huge displaced populations lacking basic necessities – Colombian and Venezuelan alike. As more restrictions are placed on Venezuelans entering Colombia, it is becoming more likely that Venezuelans will end up in areas ill-suited to handle them, including those with active criminal networks. The indigenous populations that regularly travel between Venezuela and Colombia are also experiencing significant hardships, with Colombia refusing to recognize their dual-national status.
Ms. Sánchez-Garzoli underscored the importance of the migratory process not becoming politicized in Colombia, due to the effects it could have on the nascent, fragile Colombian peace process. She stated dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia was necessary, as it is one of the largest groups operating on both sides of the border. The Venezuela crisis has quickly produced one of the largest populations of displaced people worldwide, and so an integrated, far-reaching approach to contend with the exodus is needed. She insisted that a Colombian immigration approach be holistic, and that countries in the region work together to formulate a coherent response.
Mr. Ramsey compared the relative U.S. aid provided to alleviate the crises in Myanmar, Syria, and Venezuela. Comparatively the US has provided less funding thus far to address the Venezuelan exodus, but this is in large part because President Maduro has refused funding on the insistence that there is no crisis. In light of this, Mr. Ramsey questioned whether the U.S. might have the potential to lead by example in accepting Venezuelan refugees. He noted Venezuelans have recently become the largest group of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S., and there was bipartisan congressional support last year for extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans. However, the overwhelming rollback of the TPS program has undermined it as a viable solution, and the most recent cap that President Trump has proposed on refugees – a limit of 30,000 annually, an all-time low in the history of the refugee program – further hampers the likelihood that the U.S. will accept more Venezuelan asylum-seekers and refugees.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis is unprecedented in South America in speed and quantity, according to Mr. Quintana. He provided the estimate that 2.3 million Venezuelans have already departed Venezuela, moving throughout South America as well as to the Caribbean. He noted that many of those leaving are highly qualified or highly skilled immigrants, with over 50% possessing college degrees. Remarking on the importance of South American leaders meeting in Washington that week to discuss approaches to the crisis, he insisted that the attempt to start documenting human rights violations in the regions was of paramount importance, including lives lost, children crossing alone, instances of sexual assault, and other atrocities. He underscored the need to resist and fight xenophobia in receiving countries, and echoed the insistence of many of his fellow panel members that contending with the crisis will require a coordinated response, among different countries in the region as well as between NGOs and governments.
The Q&A session built strongly upon the discussion, with a range of thoughtful questions from an audience clearly well versed with the topic, from former USAID workers, students, national security correspondents, and others with experience in the region. Never before have I attended a panel discussion that evolved into such an informed, productive, and multifaceted discussion. Although the crisis at hand appears devastating in scope and complexity, the dialogue produced here should give us all a bit of hope.