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Responding to an Exodus - Venezuela’s Migration and Refugee Crisis as Seen From the Colombian and Brazilian Borders

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By Geoff Ramsey and Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli


As the political, social and economic crisis in Venezuela worsens, more and more Venezuelans are fleeing their country in droves each day. Impoverished Venezuelans are facing food and medicine shortages. Unable to sustain their families, many are seeking refuge abroad as a way out of their predicament. South American countries, which are unaccustomed to receiving such large migration flows, are struggling to respond to the needs of the Venezuelan migrant population.

The United States has also seen an influx of Venezuelan migrants. Asylum data shows that Venezuela is now the most common nationality among those seeking asylum status in the United States. Since FY2017, the United States committed roughly $56 million in funding to governments and non-governmental groups in the regional response to Venezuela’s exodus, and has pledged to support further efforts. Because this issue is both a domestic and regional policy priority for the U.S. government, it is important to look critically at the response to Venezuelan migration in the most affected countries, and how the U.S. can offer more effective support.

The response so far is mixed, with some countries in the region adopting measures to restrict Venezuelan migration, and others opting for a more humanitarian response, facilitating special visas, asylum claims, and residency applications while addressing migrants’ need for shelter, education, and economic opportunity. Yet the situation is fragile. As the flow of migrants grows, nationalist and xenophobic arguments will likely grow as well, creating potential for anti-immigrant policies as Venezuela’s crisis drags on. And it appears destined to drag on. On May 20, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed victory in presidential elections that were widely condemned as illegitimate. With Maduro claiming a new six-year term, the outlook for ordinary Venezuelans appears bleak, and it is very likely that the exodus of Venezuelans will accelerate in the coming months.

This report applies a critical lens to the response from the two neighboring countries most affected by the exodus: Colombia and Brazil. It is based on the fieldwork conducted by the authors in Cúcuta, Colombia, and Boa Vista and Pacaraima, Brazil, for ten days in late April 2018. Our findings include:


● New regulations imposed by Colombian authorities in February 2018 significantly imperil Venezuelan migrants. While the country remains the top destination for Venezuelans fleeing the crisis, these rules—combined with major obstacles to obtaining documents in their home country—place thousands of Venezuelans at risk of exploitation in the informal sector. Authorities have conducted a “registry” of Venezuelan migrants, but have made no clear indication of how this information will be used to shape policy.

● The Colombian government’s sole shelter for Venezuelan migrants, in Cúcuta, has capacity for only 250 migrants, and sits mostly empty as it is only open to migrants with all their papers in order. This leaves civil society, international, and Church groups to provide shelter to the thousands of Venezuelans who have come to the country in need of humanitarian assistance.

● Colombia does not grant citizenship to children born to non-legal resident foreigners, and Venezuela’s crisis prevents its citizens from readily obtaining documentation. As a result, children born to Venezuelan migrants are at serious risk of statelessness, as are many who were born to Colombian parents in Venezuela but are unable to document their citizenship.
This is an important issue considering the porous nature of the border and the large binational community on either side. In 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Colombia Migration found that around 40 percent of those who are crossing into Colombia are Colombian-Venezuelan, 30 percent Colombian, and 30 percent Venezuelan. However, a more recent official survey places the breakdown at 65 percent Venezuelan, 27 percent Colombian, and 7 percent Colombo-Venezuelans.

● The public education system in Colombia, particularly in the departments of Norte de Santander and Arauca, is seeing a major influx of Venezuelan migrant children. However, local authorities say they do not have the resources to provide the same benefits to Venezuelan students as their Colombian peers, such as a school lunch program. This contributes to disincentives for migrants to send children to school.

● Colombian hospitals provide emergency services to Venezuelans without documentation.
However, preventative care and medicine are not available if the Venezuelan patient is not registered in the Colombian health system, which is difficult to navigate and run by contracted companies. Minors, pregnant and lactating women, those with special needs, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

● As a result of a migratory framework that locks them out of participation in the formal economy and, in many cases, prevents them from benefiting from social programs,
Venezuelan migrants fall prey to armed groups and criminal networks. Local officials and humanitarian workers confirmed to WOLA that Venezuelan youths are frequently recruited by illegal armed groups, and are targeted by human trafficking networks.


● Brazil receives far fewer Venezuelans than Colombia, but it is nevertheless a significant destination. Lawmakers in Roraima state, which borders Venezuela, claim there are as many as 60,000 Venezuelans in the state alone. Officials in Boa Vista, the state capital, claim that Venezuelans now make up 10 percent of the city population, or roughly 30,000 people. A particularly vulnerable share of Venezuelan migrants in Brazil are indigenous, with most belonging to the Warao people of the Orinoco delta.

● At the time of writing, Brazil’s government—in partnership with civil society—has established nine shelters for Venezuelan migrants and refugees, eight in Boa Vista and one in Pacaraima. Each one offers housing, healthcare, and food to around 500 Venezuelans, with two (the Pacaraima shelter and one in Boa Vista) exclusively oriented towards indigenous Venezuelans.

● In many respects, Brazil has adopted a commendably humane response to the flow of Venezuelan migrants. A migration law passed in March 2017 allows Venezuelans to seek temporary two-year residency in the country with just a national ID card (rather than a passport), and Venezuelan asylum seekers are automatically given a work permit upon submitting their request. Venezuelans in Brazil also benefit from universal healthcare and education, although local authorities, as in Colombia, complain of limited resources due to a strain on their system.

● However, the response from Brazil’s government has important shortcomings, most notably its heavy reliance on the armed forces. While the government authorized 190 million Brazilian reais (roughly US$54 million) to respond to the crisis, this has been earmarked specifically to the Defense Ministry. As a result, there is a heavy military presence maintaining security at each of the shelters in Roraima, and the armed forces are directly responsible for overseeing the distribution of aid alongside civil society and international organizations. The army has an undeniable logistical capacity, but critics argue that soldiers should not be coordinating the humanitarian response directly, nor tasked with security at the shelters. In our visit, WOLA witnessed army personnel using discriminating language against indigenous Venezuelans, and received reports of conflicts between the army and indigenous leaders in the shelters.

● Brazil’s government has attempted to organize a resettlement program for Venezuelans, moving roughly 350 migrants to Manaus and São Paulo, in a process known as “interiorization.” Authorities have a goal of relocating some 18,000 Venezuelans in order to ease the strain on Roraima, but there has been resistance to the plan at the municipal level in the destination locales.