The Venezuelan exodus is already structural: migration agencies are appealing for more funding to assist receiving countries

The Venezuelan exodus is already structural: migration agencies are appealing for more funding to assist receiving countries

Experts from the IOM, UNHCR and NRC appeal to international donors to support the additional budget requested by the United Nations to tackle the “Venezuela situation” (press conference in Brussels, 22 May).

(Marta Checa)

On 20 May, elections were held in Venezuela that saw Nicolás Maduro reelected as the head of state. With an abstention rate of almost 54 per cent and reports of irregularities by the G7 and the European Union (which today agreed on new sanctions) the sense of uncertainty, both political and socioeconomic, is deepening in the once wealthy Latin American country.

It is against the backdrop of “threats by armed groups, fear of being targeted on account of political opinion, real or perceived, insecurity and violence, lack of food, medicine or access to essential social services as well as loss of income” that the flow of Venezuelans leaving the country has seen a dramatic increase since 2014, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Venezuela has gone from being a country people migrated to – mainly from other countries in the region – to being a country people migrate from in the last two years. The Venezuelan presence in other Latin American countries (especially Colombia, which has already taken in over 700,000 Venezuelans), has seen a 900 per cent increase since 2014.

Over the last four years, according to the “conservative figures” of the UNHCR, over one and a half million Venezuelans have left their country, and over 60 per cent “are in an irregular migratory status”.

“This makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, extortion, violence, trafficking, sexual abuse, recruitment, and discrimination and xenophobia, especially in insecure border areas where criminal and armed groups operate,” the agency points out, adding that “the number of Venezuelans without any form of legal status will continue to rise, creating barriers to accessing rights and services in receiving countries”.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR, both UN agencies, together with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), made an appeal at a press conference in Brussels last week to international donors, and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) in particular, to support the additional budget requested by the United Nations: US$46 million (around €39 million), of which a mere US$3.3 million (around €2.8 million), just seven per cent of the amount requested, has been raised to date. The money will go towards supporting operations in neighbouring countries such Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and the southern Caribbean islands, as well as Venezuela itself.

Although the barriers are few in terms of mobility (thanks to the various legal frameworks through which asylum and residence can be applied for), spokespersons at the Brussels press conference pointed out that the limitations are substantial when its comes to the countries’ resources, such as health and education (73 per cent of Venezuelan migrants have no health insurance), or social security, which could contribute to a rise in the discrimination and xenophobia they face.

The animosity that local communities feel towards the migrants is also fuelled by the competition they represent both in the formal and informal sector. And at political level, although it has not yet been the case, said the spokespersons, it cannot be ruled out that certain political parties could exploit the crisis and various tensions, in a year marked by several national elections across the continent.

“It is time to take action. The migration flows have become structural. There is no sign of the situation changing and of Venezuelans returning en masse. What we could see is their families joining them,” warned the IOM director for South America, Diego Beltrán.

Indeed, “given that the school year is coming to an end, the profile of those crossing the border could change – with more women and children leaving the country – adding to the complexity of the situation,” said Isabel Márquez, the UNHCR representative in Brazil.

Despite the urgency created by the magnitude of the migration crisis, there are a number of positive aspects, such as the absence of camps, making it easier for the migrants to integrate within the socioeconomic fabric of the host country, or the fact that many families are mixed, and that many are staying close to the border in the hopes that the situation in Venezuela will improve.

Ana Eugenia Durán, head of the IOM mission in Bogotá, spoke to Equal Times about the humanitarian, social and developmental response in Colombia, where the impact of the exodus from Venezuela is currently the highest, and the approach being taken by donors.

If we compare Venezuelan migration with others currently occupying the headlines (such as Syrian), why is it that the Venezuelans migrants generally seem - at this early stage - to be faring better?

Latin America and, above all, South America has a history of policies and regulatory frameworks facilitating interregional movement, and this has impacted favourably on making migration easier and more widely accepted. In addition, in the case of Colombia more specifically, large numbers of its nationals migrated to Venezuela some years ago, and strong ties were maintained between those that left and their relatives who stayed behind. The return of these people and their integration into the local community is also facilitated by the fact that a significant portion of the migrants are Colombo-Venezuelans, whose descendants can become nationals.

Yes, there is a degree of xenophobic sentiment, as is the case everywhere. In certain circumstances, depending on the number of migrants and their circumstances, they can generate costs that receiving countries are not prepared for. And the added needs in terms of attention and access to the basic services also required by nationals can lead to them being compromised or limited, which can provoke a reaction from locals. This can happen, for example, when it comes to access to basic health services, education or housing.

There are, however, very positive aspects to orderly migration, both for the migrants themselves and for their host and home countries, such as diversity, interculturality, the exchange of knowledge, remittances as a source of development, and so on.

What approach do you take when requesting funds from the international community for this crisis?

When you speak to donors about supporting access to healthcare, for example, it has to be framed in terms of general access that benefits migrants and host communities alike. Such an approach undoubtedly has a positive impact in terms of minimising xenophobic sentiment and promoting integration and development. That is our aim. That is the approach we are taking.

Regarding the additional funding required (US$46 million, of which US$8.1 million will go to Colombia), is there a deadline for raising it and what period would it cover?

We, the agencies within the UN system, are emphasising the urgency of the situation to the donors, but we are also highlighting the fact that the proposals should not been envisaged from a purely humanitarian angle. We need to go beyond that and propose lasting and sustainable solutions for the medium and long term.
 
With that in mind, and given the unlikelihood of the situation being resolved in the very near future, the proposals need to be formulated with a results outlook of between three and five years. Some studies indicate that after three years, people who have been forced to leave their country and who manage to settle are less likely to return, especially when settling in a similar society to their own.

In light of the still fragile peace agreement in Colombia, after half a century of armed conflict, how real are the fears that migrants in a desperate situation may be recruited and end up swelling the ranks of armed or criminal bands? And what impact do you think mass migration from Venezuela could have on the peace process?

There is always a risk that the needs or the lack of resources suffered by vulnerable migrants might push them towards criminal activity or make them more susceptible to recruitment by criminal organisations.

The efforts the country has been making within the framework of the peace process, particularly in certain areas, have had to be redirected, to tackle the challenges generated by the recent migration flows. An example is the investment in health.

It is, indeed, a cause for concern among the local authorities and the international community, because they are eager to see the peace process succeed. And there has been no real assessment of the impact of Venezuelan migration at regional level.

It is not an issue affecting Colombia alone but the whole region, and we are working on the analysis of that impact. As a result, over and above the local proposals, our efforts are focussed on regional proposals.

What is your assessment of Colombia’s management of the Venezuelan migration crisis, especially during this election year? Could it serve as an example for dealing with other crises?

Colombia has traditionally been a country of emigration. The migration flows that have developed over recent months have meant that decisions have had to be taken and new migration policies and regulations have had to be formulated within very short spaces of time.

The Colombian government’s appeal to the United Nations System for support from the specialised agencies able to contribute their expertise and know-how has given rise to cooperation not only with the national authorities but also to coordinated work between the agencies related to this issue, especially the IOM and UNHCR. Examples include the joint proposal for the Regional Action Plan, assistance with implementing the Colombian government’s scheme to register Venezuelan migrants and the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), creating a better understanding of the migration flows, their profile and characteristics, so that the government can formulate policies based on real data.
 
In addition, temporary shelters have been set up across the region. The Colombian government and the UN agencies are not contemplating permanent shelters/camps, where people would have to live for long periods of time, as that generates a great deal of uncertainty. There are people who enter camps and never know when they are going to leave, and there are people who have spent their whole lives there.
 
All of these processes constitute good practices and mechanisms that help to deal with the situation at both local and regional level, seeking a balance between respect for sovereignty and respect for the migrants’ human rights. 
 
The stance taken against xenophobia and discrimination by the Colombian and the other governments in the region also has to be recognised. 
 
This experience should also be passed onto the candidates and their government programmes, and support will have to be given to the new authorities to ensure the sustainability of the measures taken.

This article has been translated from Spanish.