Responding to Venezuela's Exodus

ISIM, together with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), hosted an event on the “Venezuelan Exodus” on 19 September.  The following is a brief summary of a very rich discussion of a complex issue.  

After ISIM’s Dr. Elizabeth Ferris welcomed participants to the discussion about Venezuela’s escalating refugee and migration crisis, Mr. Chris Canalan, Director of Global Policy Development of the Soros Management Fund introduced the distinguished panel of experts and moderated the discussion.

Dr. Ligia Bolivar, a sociologist at Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andres Bello, provided a sobering overview of the current situation in Venezuela. Drawing on recent studies, she explained that the primary reason Venezuelans are leaving the country is the desperate economic situation, followed by the lack of overall security.  Political persecution is not the main driver of the Venezuelan exodus.  She noted that unlike other countries in Latin America, Venezuela does not have a history of emigration. The fact that more than 2 million Venezuelans have left the country is an indication of how bad conditions are in Venezuela.  There has been a shift from a popular perception that no me sacan de mi casa ni muerto (not even dead will you take me out of my house) to many who are now saying no me quiero morir aquí (I do not want to die here).  She emphasized that while most of the Venezuelans who are fleeing are not refugees in the traditional sense, they are in need of the same kind of protection and assistance that other refugees receive when they cross  international borders.

The solutions that are developed must take into account that, when the crisis in Venezuela ends, the refugees may not return to Venezuela—at least not immediately. This is a point that was further developed by Luis Carlos Rodríguez, representing Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados para Latinoamérica y el Caribe. Mr. Rodríguez specifically noted the problems that the refugees face when entering Colombia and other countries, particularly as governments are increasingly requiring Venezuelan entrants to have passports. But many Venezuelans do not have passports and in fact it takes at least two years to obtain one in the country.  Another problem is that many of the Venezuelans have health problems as a result of the lack of medical care in the country.

Mr. Rodriguez highlighted an overall need for regional collaboration and unity. These points were reinforced by speaker Ms. Gimena Sánchez-Grazoli, WOLA, who works extensively on Colombian issues.  She emphasized that while Colombia has long experience of dealing with internally displaced people, the government simply was not prepared for the arrival of over a million Venezuelans in a short time frame.  Colombia’s response has been generous but existing governmental systems have been overwhelmed.  She also noted that many of the Venezuelans are now living in areas where illicit groups and guerrilla forces are active, leading to fears that they may be caught up in violence.   Finally she stressed the importance of providing assistance to Colombian host communities as well as to Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

Mr. Geoff Ramsey, also of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), noted that asylum claims for Venezuelans have increased dramatically in the region as well as in the United States and stressed the importance of a comprehensive regional response to the crisis. 

Finally, Francisco Quintana, Program Director at the Center for Justice and International Law, emphasized the differences in the present movement of Venezuelans in comparison with earlier Latin American refugee and migration patterns.  First, the scale of the movement is unprecedented with over 2 million Venezuelans having left their country in recent years; some estimate the total number as over 3 million.A second difference is that the vast majority of those who are leaving are not going north via traditional Latin American migration routes, but are moving south. Thirdly, the migrants are well-educated; over half of the migrants have a university degree.  He emphasized that governments need support and that international organizations such as UNHCR and IOM cannot meet the needs of the refugees on their own.  Civil society organizations are usually the first point of contact for the Venezuelan migrants and refugees  and need to come together with other actors to ensure that the Venezuelans receive the assistance and protection they need. Following the presentations, the panelists responded to many questions from the audience.