On Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis

Venezuelan Refugee Crisis
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Venezuelan Refugee Crisis. Image by kalhh from Pixabay

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The world has been experiencing a surge in refugee crises in recent history due to various social, economic, and political reasons. In my last essay, we took a brief look at the ongoing Turkish refugee crisis.

In this essay, we will be taking a brief look at another major refugee crisis in another part of the world, which is the Venezuelan refugee crisis, also known as the Venezuelan migration crisis.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis began during president Hugo Chavez‘s Bolivarian Revolution, which began after he came to power in 1999. The Bolivarian Revolution is a political process in Venezuela led by Chavez, which aims to build an inter-American coalition in order to implement nationalism, Bolivarianism, and a state-led economy.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis saw the emigration of millions of Venezuelan citizens fleeing Venezuela due to social, economic, and political issues.

Although the crisis began during Chavez’s presidency, it continues to this day under the presidency of Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro. Over the years, the crisis turned so bad that it is now the largest recorded refugee crisis in the Americas.

Let us now take a look at the history of the refugee crisis in Venezuela.

Venezuela, which was once a safe haven for immigrants fleeing the repression and intolerance of the old world during the 20th century, began to experience a minor wave of emigration around the year 1983 when oil prices collapsed. However, the rate of emigration was still very low and non-threatening at the time.

The emigration rate remained low until the year 1999 when it began to steadily increase after Chavez became the president of Venezuela and launched the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavez promised to allocate more funds to the lower impoverished classes of Venezuelan society, thereby causing serious concern among the higher wealthy class and the middle class, provoking them to pack up their bags and leave the country for good.

This was the first major wave of emigration Venezuela experienced due to political reasons. Unfortunately, it would not be the last. During this first wave, people from the higher classes of Venezuelan society began to worry about their safety and security under Chavez’s rule and therefore fled the country.

The second major wave of emigration took place after the failed coup d’etat in 2002, which saw Chavez being ousted from office for 47 hours before being restored to power again. It was the mobilization of loyal ranks in the army who opposed the coup and the overwhelming popular support that brought Chavez back to power.

The coup attempt revealed the uncertain and unstable nature of the Venezuelan political scene, resulting in more people fleeing the country for safety and stability in some other country.

The third major wave of emigration took place four years later when Chavez was re-elected to office.

By the year 2009, over a million Venezuelans had fled the country during the ten years of Chavez’s rule. By 2014, it is estimated that over 1.5 million Venezuelans, which is around 4 to 6% of the country’s total population, had fled the country.

Sadly, this was nowhere close to the peak of the refugee crisis in Venezuela as things would only grow worse during the final years of Chavez’s presidency and then drastically increase during the presidency of Maduro.

Chavez’s immense popularity among the masses and common people of Venezuela largely depended on his populist policies that favored the betterment of the lower classes. He established Bolivarian missions in order to provide public services to improve the social, cultural, and economic conditions of the lower classes.

These missions saw the construction of several thousands of free medical clinics for the impoverished masses and also implemented subsidies for food and housing. These missions ensured social and economic advancement, improvement in literacy rate, and healthcare facilities, and they helped to bring down the poverty rate in the country.

A United Nations index stated that the quality of life for common Venezuelans had also increased due to these Bolivarian missions.

Although these populist policies ensured his popularity among the masses, they also led to severe economic issues that in turn led to severe shortages of food and medicine in the country. They also led to an increase in unemployment, political corruption, human rights abuses, business closures, and a decrease in productivity and law and order.

Another major drawback of these missions was that they relied heavily on oil products, the primary commodity of Venezuela’s economy, which led to massive corruption and economic mismanagement. This resulted in an increase in the economic development of the oil sector and a dramatic decrease in the economic development of other sectors, thereby crippling Venezuela’s economy.

By the early 2010s, Venezuela’s economy began to face the dire consequences of the price controls and overspending during the previous decade undertaken by Chavez’s government. Those populist policies came back to haunt the country’s economy, becoming unsustainable and plunging Venezuela into inflation and poverty, thereby resulting in even more shortages of basic necessities.

To make matters worse, several countries, including the United States, the twelve countries of the Lima Group, and the nation-states of the European Union, applied sanctions on the Venezuelan government due to corruption, worsening rule of law, and human rights abuses, further harming the country’s economy.

By the time Chavez died in 2013 while still in office, Venezuela had become one of the most dysfunctional economies in the world, and it was this economy that Maduro inherited.

Maduro, instead of focusing on improving the economy, continued with Chavez’s policies and took measures against political opponents who he claimed were responsible for an international economic war against Venezuela.

By 2014, Venezuela was experiencing a severe economic recession, and by 2016, it had recorded its highest inflation rate in history at 800%.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis grew worse due to low oil prices in 2015 and a drop in oil production, the refugee crisis also became worse. While earlier it was only the higher classes, scholars, and business leaders who were fleeing the country, now the middle and lower classes also began emigrating in huge numbers, leading to a major brain drain in the country as skilled and educated citizens left the country in desperation.

As Maduro’s political opponents fled the country due to persecution and oppression, the ones left behind were primarily Maduro’s supporters, making his government as good as an authoritarian government.

By October 2022, it was estimated that over 7.1 million Venezuelans, which is over 15% of the country’s total population, had fled the country since 1999, thereby overtaking the number of refugees from the Syrian Civil War to become the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is also said to be the most underfunded refugee crisis in modern history.

There are several causes for the steady increase and continuation of the refugee crisis in Venezuela, such as a dramatic increase in crime rates, worsening economic situation, increase in poverty levels, shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, rise in diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, malaria, diphtheria, increase in political repression and instability, lack of opportunities in employment and business, etc.

Violence and deaths in Venezuelan society increased and so did corruption. Moreover, Venezuelans saw no signs of improvement or change in the current leadership as Maduro further solidified his position as president.

Things got so bad that parents began encouraging their children to leave Venezuela for their own safety and security and for a better future.

Most of the emigrants made their way to either developed or developing countries. In the Americas, they fled to the United States, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, among others.

Many fled to islands in the Caribbean such as Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, and Aruba. Several of the emigrants even found their into Europe, settling in countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Hungary. Many from the Venezuelan Jewish community ended up in Israel and settled there.

In total, it is estimated that Venezuelan refugees have fled to over 90 countries across the world in the hope of a better and safer future. Unfortunately, it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to track the exact number of refugees that have fled Venezuela.

The estimates available are based on the estimates given by the governments of the receiving country, which mainly track the registered refugees with regular status and not irregular ones.

Moreover, illegal migration has made it impossible to determine the exact number of refugees that have fled Venezuela, although estimates reveal that it has increased from over 380,000 in 2005 to over 1,580,000 in 2017.

Needless to say, the life of a refugee is not safe or stable even if they manage to leave the country of their birth. Venezuelan refugees have been victims of discrimination in the countries they have fled to due to several reasons such as competition with and xenophobic tendencies from the local population.

Another reason for hate crimes and discrimination against Venezuelan refugees in the host countries is the drastic increase in crime rates in the host countries due to crimes committed by the refugees.

Many Venezuelan criminals emigrated to other countries where they carried on and spread their organized crime activities. Robberies, deaths, drug trafficking, smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution all increased in several host countries, especially in Peru, Chile, Panama, and the United States.

The host countries have also experienced a sudden increase in diseases such as measles, malaria, and diphtheria brought in by Venezuelan refugees. This even led to measles outbreaks in Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia.

Due to these reasons, the local population of the host countries began to discriminate against and call for the expulsion of Venezuelan refugees.

In countries like Brazil, some Venezuelan refugee camps have been destroyed by locals, while in countries like Ecuador and Panama, discrimination and anti-Venezuelan rhetoric is rampant, often exploited for political agendas.

Due to such discrimination and lack of acceptance in host countries, many Venezuelan women have no choice but to resort to prostitution to earn a livelihood, several of them being educated women who find no opportunity to pursue the careers they have left behind.

Many Venezuelan refugees had an extremely tough and traumatic experience as they fled their home country for other nations. Many traveled by sea, and the majority of them traveled thousands of miles on foot as they could not afford other modes of transportation. During their journeys, many were victims of robberies, smuggling, fake travel guides, and other traumatic events.

These traumatic experiences led to many refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The violent experiences in their home country, the act of leaving behind their loved ones, their difficult journeys during emigration, the discrimination they faced in host countries, and the monumental task of adjusting to the culture of a new country, all took a toll on the mental health of thousands of Venezuelan refugees.

Unfortunately, the international community was late to come to the assistance of Venezuelan refugees. As mentioned earlier, the Venezuelan refugee crisis is currently the most underfunded refugee crisis in modern history, and until recently, the least assisted one.

Humanitarian aid and response from countries and international organizations were slow in the coming. In early 2018, the United Nations Refugee Agency encouraged host countries to accept Venezuelan refugees within their borders, grant them basic human rights, and not deport them from their countries.

The same year, the United Nations declared the Venezuelan refugee crisis as being a monumental and grave emergency, and it asked for regional countries to assist in the crisis. The European Union dispatched observers to Colombia to assist the government in the planning and accommodation of Venezuelan refugees.

The United Nations even urged the Venezuelan government to take measures to curb the crisis by improving the economic and political situation in the country, as well as the healthcare facilities, and establishing law and order.

The healthcare situation in Venezuela became so bad that several hospitals struggled to have clean running water and electricity.

In 2021, a group of 46 countries, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank known together as the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants pledged to allocate around $1.5 billion, consisting of $600 million in loans and $954 million in grants, to aid the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

By the year 2020, the group had managed to raise around $2.79 billion.

Gradually, more regional countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia, and Bolivia began to provide humanitarian aid as well to curb the crisis.

One of the reasons why it took a while for the Venezuelan refugee crisis to receive international aid and attention was the fact that it cannot be easily defined as a refugee crisis. The Venezuelan refugee crisis is quite unique in its own way and has been defined by the United Nations as a mixed-flow population.

The vast number of people leaving the country are identified as both asylum seekers and general migrants, thereby making it difficult for the crisis to be termed a refugee crisis.

However, in 2018 the United Nations urged regional countries to treat Venezuelan migrants as per the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, bringing Venezuelan migrants into the wider definition of a refugee. This enabled them to receive aid as refugees and not general migrants.

Human Rights Watch has defined the Venezuelan refugee crisis as a complex humanitarian emergency, and one can hardly doubt that anymore.

Sadly, even though the international community has come around to accepting the crisis as a major humanitarian and refugee crisis and is actively aiding it with planning and with funds, the Venezuelan government is still in denial.

The Venezuelan government continues to deny the crisis and insists that it is all propaganda and fake news undertaken by the international media.

The only measure taken by the Venezuelan government in recent years was the introduction of the Back to the homeland plan, which offered to pay for the tickets of Venezuelan migrants who wished to return to Venezuela. However, the program met with very little success.

Although this may seem like a pessimistic view to have, the truth is that it does not seem like the crisis would be coming to an end anytime soon. Only time will tell what the future has in store for Venezuela and its people.