Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Can Be Done About Venezuela’s Migrant Crisis?

Above, Venezuelan migrants are pictured crossing the Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Colombia last year.

Brazil’s government is declaring an emergency in Roraima, in order to allocate funding and troops to the northern border state to help control a flood of Venezuelan refugees in the area, Brazil’s defense minister said this month. Approximately 40,000 Venezuelans now inhabit the state capital, Boa Vista, representing about 10 percent if the city’s population. Meantime, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has tightened border controls and heightened security in border cities that have been hardest-hit by the Venezuelan refugee crisis. How well have both countries’ governments been handling the influx of Venezuelans? What security issues are most pressing for border areas in Colombia and Brazil? How much assistance will the regional and national governments need to deal with the crisis, and what more can be done as Venezuela’s outlook worsens?

Francisco Márquez Lara, executive director of the Visión Democrática Foundation: “The collapse of Venezuela is a problem not just for Venezuelans but for all of Latin America. Different estimates range between one to two million Venezuelans will be migrating in 2018. Not all of them will leave the country under the same conditions; some will leave under very precarious terms. In almost all scenarios, the situation in Venezuela gets worse, and most people who leave under precarious situations go through Colombia. However, they are also arriving in big numbers in small countries like Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Regional and international support is needed; Colombia by itself is not equipped to handle this massive exodus. In the border areas, trafficking of drugs, arms and people are huge concerns. One of the most profitable illicit activities is the smuggling of gasoline from Venezuela to Colombia. It is estimated to earn between $1 billion and $2 billion a year, and it is distributed between military mafias and guerrilla groups along the borders. The international response is a key factor in not only addressing the humanitarian situation, but also thinking about tackling how these mafias operate. They cause havoc at the border, increase crime and cause a collapse in overall governance. Furthermore, neighboring countries should consider granting refugee status to arriving Venezuelans. According to a new report published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the massive exodus of Venezuelans under the current deteriorating circumstances constitutes one of the criteria for officially declaring a refugee crisis. Unfortunately, it will only deteriorate further and could even become one of the worst in Latin America’s history.”

Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas: “Responding to Venezuela’s migration crisis will require the international community to increase funding for humanitarian responses, and to refrain from worsening the crisis by supporting sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector. Civil society organizations responding to the migration flow have criticized the lack of a meaningful humanitarian response. Venezuelan migrants and refugees face major obstacles in accessing food, medicines, housing, education for children and employment. This is particularly true in Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean, which are primary destinations of the poorest Venezuelans who lack the means to travel further. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that as many as 750,000 Venezuelans have fled to these three destinations. The United States can play an important role in addressing the situation, and in encouraging other actors in the international donor community to do their part. But the response from the Trump administration has been inadequate. So far, the administration has only signaled a willingness to shift a portion of assistance to civil society in Venezuela (for which the State Department requested $9 million in the 2019 fiscal year) to address the needs of Venezuelans in Colombia. A humanitarian response in all affected countries will require a far more significant investment. Ensuring funding for these efforts may be difficult in today’s polarized climate in Washington, but there is one way the Trump administration can address the situation without relying on Congress. Sanctions on either Venezuelan crude exports or imports of refined oil would inevitably worsen the already tragic toll of Venezuela’s economic collapse, and would doubtlessly accelerate mass migration. For these reasons, an executive order to this effect must be avoided at all costs.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation: “Willingness aside, neither Colombia nor Brazil has the overall resources to care for the hundreds of Venezuelans who pour across the countries’ borders daily. Colombia issued one and a half million temporary border crossing cards to fleeing Venezuelans in 2017, and President Temer declared a state of social emergency in Roraima. The possibility of criminals and special-interest aliens crossing their borders is a security concern in both countries. Cúcuta in Colombia and Pacaraima in Brazil cannot ensure the institutional security along the borders, which both countries need. The Lima Group and international aid organizations are stuck at meetings, talking the ‘Maduro Problem’ to death, and nothing else. Controlling migration is the first step. But most effective would be to give Venezuelans already in Colombia and Brazil temporary work permits, to be renewed yearly. The Inter-American Development Bank and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America should establish a program that pairs Colombian and Brazilian entrepreneurs with Venezuelan refugees to create jobs suitable to the 21st century. Venezuelan refugees are educated and entrepreneurial. They can help raise the skills pool, create employment and contribute to the much-needed growth of the areas that receive them. Pairing Venezuelans with locals who work legally will prevent the criminality, racism and chauvinism that Venezuelans suffer now. Having a place to work will benefit refugees and host countries alike. Technology-based commercial activities will beat selling mangoes, cleaning windshields at street corners, narcomenudeo (the dealing of illegal drugs in small quantities), and petty crime to afford food in Bogotá, Cúcuta, Boa Vista, Medellín, and other cities. Enable Venezuelans to contribute work in their host countries, and everyone wins. Otherwise, the tragedy of Venezuela will become Brazil’s tragedy. It is already a tragedy in Colombia.”

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