In the past few months, as the dangers of COVID-19 have escalated in Latin America, many Venezuelan refugees have had a difficult time re-entering their home country. About 60,000 Venezuelan migrants have crossed back into the country from Colombia since March, and Colombian authorities expect these numbers to jump by the tens of thousands in the upcoming weeks. However, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, suspecting that returning migrants may have been intentionally infected by other countries to spread the virus to Venezuela, has placed a limit on re-entry. As of now, only 1,000 migrants are permitted to enter the country per week. Compared with the number of refugees trying to re-enter, this is a very small amount of people.
Colombian Secretary of Migration Victor Bautista further articulates the unfortunate situation many migrants face: “For the past five years we’ve seen more than 3 million Venezuelans walk through here, all looking for a way out and better opportunities. And now it flipped toward Venezuela.” The migrants have so few options for survival that they are forced to return to the place they once fled. Unfortunately, as long as they are unable to cross the border and return home, they will continue to face turmoil. As UN Latin American Official Carlos Perez explains, “Migrants are at high risk of being targeted by traffickers in the countries they transit and in the places where they settle…Some, especially young women, disappear en route.”
Whether or not President Maduro is correct in his assumption that neighboring countries are trying to further infect Venezuela, it is a fair judgement for the country to let in only small numbers of returning migrants at a time. That being said, more needs to be done to protect those migrants who wait at the border. Barred from some neighboring countries and unable to re-enter their own, these refugees are very susceptible to disease, as well as violence from smugglers, traffickers, and random armed groups. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has strengthened their presence on the border to limit such risks and to identify those travelers who require more protection. However, more needs to be done to ensure full protection of these refugees. Among other things, Response for Venezuela, a group of refugee activists, has made several important demands that need to be addressed immediately: allow unrestricted access to humanitarian workers, build solidarity among Latin American and Caribbean nations, train law enforcement to identify and handle trafficking situations, and provide better health care opportunities.
The UNHCR cites nearly 5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and over 650,000 Venezuelan asylum-seekers worldwide. Although Venezuela used to be a host to worldwide refugees, since 2015 they have become one of the world’s biggest displacement crises. Most refugees fled Venezuela due to political and economic turmoil. Former President Hugo Chavez’s large amounts of government spending drove the country into a recession. According to CNN, 96% of Venezuelans now live under the poverty line with little access to clean water and food. Those who chose to flee the country are likewise vulnerable because most have not obtained documentation to reside in other countries, and therefore lack basic rights and protections.
While there is much to be done to end the Venezuelan crisis as a whole, providing protection for refugees in transition is an important step, and one that can be accomplished now. It will be a while before Latin America recovers from COVID and Venezuela turns its economy around. However, small steps can be taken to help Venezuelan migrants stay safe as they wait for re-entry into their home country or documentation to enter another. Latin American countries must ban together to create a safe travel environment for the refugees, and there needs to be more enforcement of violence against migrants. After all the turmoil they have faced, these Venezuelan refugees deserve to find some sense of peace and safety.
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