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A South American Migration Crisis: Venezuelan Outflows Test Neighbors' Hospitality

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By Luisa Feline Freier and Nicolas Parent

It is increasingly evident that the Venezuelan exodus that began in 2014 is now the fastest-escalating displacement of people across borders in Latin American history. The deepening political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has led to the mass movement of people across the region—mostly to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—and beyond. Estimates of Venezuelans on the move are imprecise, but range from 1.6 million to 4 million people abroad as of early 2018. Hundreds of thousands more have left in the first half of the year, and the numbers keep climbing—outpacing earlier humanitarian flows from Central America, Colombia, and Cuba. Some experts predict the displacement could surpass the 5.6 million Syrians who have fled that country’s civil war.

These figures attest to the severity of the Venezuelan tragedy and suggest that this displacement crisis is only beginning. Government mismanagement of the economy has led to runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods in what was once a well-off country, pushing many people into poverty. Some 80 percent of the population was living in severe poverty as of April 2018, and hundreds of thousands were at risk of starvation.

There is no reason to believe that the outflow of Venezuelans will diminish in the foreseeable future. Roughly half of surveyed young people between ages 18 and 24, and 55 percent of upper-middle class respondents, said they hoped to leave, according to a December 2017 poll by Consultores 21—and most identified Latin America as their preferred destination. The number of Venezuelans entering Peru almost quadrupled over a four-month period: from 100,000 in March 2018 to nearly 350,000 in early June. As the exodus expands, the humanitarian needs of migrants grow more urgent.

These outflows pose a significant challenge to regional governments and have led to a mosaic of different policy reactions. Due to the scale of the phenomenon, governments across the region that have affirmed their solidarity with Venezuelans and have been receptive to arrivals still face difficulties in meeting the needs of migrants. In some cases, domestic pressure to limit Venezuelan entries is mounting.

This article examines the characteristics of Venezuelan migrants based on the latest data available, before discussing how governments in the region have responded to the inflow and what the crisis means in the context of shifting Latin American immigration laws.