Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis

While the United States government has made immigration from Latin America one of its main concerns, it is important to look at the conditions in Latin American countries causing people to leave. In Venezuela, economic and political issues have caused a humanitarian crisis. On November 8, the UN reported that since 2014, over three million Venezuelans have left the country. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and oil is their main export and source of revenue. However, due to this reliance, when oil prices plummeted in 2014, the Venezuelan government was not able to invest in infrastructure or import needed goods as before. As food, medicine, and other basic goods became scarce, inflation increased. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently reported that inflation had reached 830,000% and is expected to rise. On November 15, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on the humanitarian crisis people are fleeing. Some are escaping political persecution, but most were forced to leave due to food and medicine shortages and the resulting health crisis. In addition to these crises, the increase in Venezuelan migrants is also putting a strain on neighbouring countries, like Columbia, which hosts over a million Venezuelan migrants.

The Venezuelan government’s response to inflation has involved currency changes (from the standard bolivar to the strong bolivar to the sovereign bolivar) and just printing more money, causing even more inflation. Economists warn that the new currency will have the same problems unless the root causes of inflation are addressed. Other measures taken include raising the minimum wage and the creation of the petro, a cryptocurrency linked to Venezuela’s oil reserves. However, the continued migration out of Venezuela demonstrates that these are not working. The average Venezuelan cannot afford basic goods and can only afford to eat because of government subsidies in state-run stores.

The result of these shortages is a public health crisis. As Shannon Doocy, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in an HRW report, “Venezuela’s public health system has collapsed, putting at risk the lives of countless Venezuelans. The combination of a failing health system and widespread food shortages has produced a humanitarian catastrophe, and it will only get worse if it’s not addressed urgently.” Due to the lack of medical supplies, outbreaks of diseases such as measles and diphtheria have increased in the past four years. The country also suffers from malaria and tuberculosis epidemics, and a lack of anti-retroviral treatment for people with HIV. Food shortages and high levels of malnutrition only add to the health crisis. There is an urgent need for humanitarian aid and provision of supplies to prevent the crisis from worsening.

Once migrants and refugees leave Venezuela, they still need aid, and this burden is placed on the country they migrate to. Most Venezuelan migrants go to Colombia, where there are about 3,000 arrivals everyday. As one man who helps shelter Venezuelans told Al Jazeera, “People go crazy over the caravan of Central Americans entering Mexico, trying to reach the US. That’s four, five, maybe 6,000 migrants, that’s how many we get every four days.” Venezuela’s neighbouring countries have been welcoming to migrants like Venezuela was to people fleeing conflict in the past. “However, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community,” according to Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM Joint Special Representative for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela. The increasing number of migrants is stretching health and social services, creating fears of unrest and raising competition for low-skill jobs. Migration from Venezuela has already incited violence in Brazil and a standoff at Ecuador’s border. In Colombia, the growing informal migrant camps forced the country to open the first city-funded tent shelter for Venezuelan migrants on November 13. According to Marianne Menijvar, Colombia director for the International Rescue Committee, “Large cities are resisting opening temporary shelters because they could become a magnet for large inflows. The Colombian government is overwhelmed, they need international assistance.”

As a solution to Venezuela’s crisis, some have suggested military invasion. Luis Almagro, the 10th Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), suggested the OAS consider military intervention to replace Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro. The United States government has also considered a military invasion and has increased sanctions on Venezuela in the past year, furthering the economic crisis. In response to Almagro, ten Latin American countries issued a statement rejecting regime change. Latin America has grown tired of violent regime change because of the history of US intervention in the region. Military intervention would not be received well by most Latin American countries and would create more issues, such as more migration in the wake of the violence and destroyed state institutions that could take years to rebuild.

With the Venezuelan government unable to provide necessities, humanitarian aid is needed. New strategies to aid Venezuelan migrants are already being developed and implemented, such as the 13 refugee shelters in Roraima, Brazil set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is the first time they have launched such shelters in Latin America and more actions like this are needed to ensure that Venezuelans receive food, shelter, and healthcare. Colombia can lead the effort to provide aid to Venezuela migrants and refugees but will need assistance and funding from the international community. In September, eleven Latin American nations signed a declaration promising “to provide medical care, public education and work opportunities to Venezuelans; to accept expired travel documents; to allocate funds to the most overwhelmed immigration agencies or regions; and to fight human trafficking, migrant smuggling, and discrimination against Venezuelans.” This is an important step in making sure that the human rights of migrants are not violated, but the crisis in Venezuela still need to be addressed.

The root of the problems – from the refugee crisis, public health crisis, and goods shortage – is the economic instability of Venezuela. Investment in local businesses and loans for people to start businesses would help to diversify the economy away from oil. While this will not necessarily reverse inflation, it could stabilize it enough to allow for systematic changes to put the country on the right track. The current solutions addressing inflation have only made the system worse, so the system must be remade to restore economic stability.