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No end in sight for the exodus from Venezuela


Mauro Pimentel | AFP

Paul De Maeyer - published on 09/20/18

It's estimated that at least 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country.

Delegations from 13 Latin American countries — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Uruguay — met earlier this month in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to analyze the Venezuelan refugee crisis and to coordinate humanitarian aid.

At the conclusion of the meetings, on September 4, 11 countries — Bolivia and the Dominican Republic didn’t lend their support to the initiative — signed an 18-point common declaration in Spanish, called the Quito Declaration on Human Mobility of Venezuelan Citizens in the Region, in which they ask Caracas to accept humanitarian aid for dealing with the flow of migrants, which is destabilizing “the region’s capacity to take them in,” reports the AFP news agency.

Historic dimensions

The situation is indeed grave, even dramatic. “The exodus of Venezuelans from the country is one of Latin America’s largest mass-population movements in history,” said William Spindler, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, this past August.

As detailed in a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) published this past September 3 under the title “The Venezuelan Exodus:The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” since 2014 — the year in which the first mass protests broke out against the government of president Nicolás Maduro — more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country, at least half of them in just the past 18 months.

Venezuela has approximately 31.5 million inhabitants, but the motives that make nearly one in 10 of them move elsewhere include — besides the repression by the Maduro government and the endemic violence —  the dire economic crisis, which has forced the country to its knees, trapped in the jaws of million-fold hyperinflation.

At the end of July, the price of a simple cup of coffee had risen to two million bolivars. At the end of April, it was “just” 190,000 bolivars, Japan Times points out. Since Maduro took power in April of 2013, the bolivar has lost 99.99 percent of its value on the black market as compared to the US dollar.

According to data collected by a group of Venezuelan universities, the poverty rate in the country has reached 87 percent, while the rate of extreme poverty rose to 61 percent. In addition, six out of 10 citizens say they have lost, on average, 11 kg (about 24 lbs) due to the scarcity of food. These statistics are completely rejected by the government in Caracas, which asserts that the rate of extreme poverty is only 4.4 percent, the Japan Times reports.

Some data, and welcoming countries

The country that is undeniably bearing the greatest brunt of the migratory crisis is Colombia, itself still suffering the consequences of half a century of civil war. According to a report from the government in Bogota, reveals Human Rights Watch, between March 2017 and June 2018 close to a million refugees have flowed into the country. But the real number is probably higher, given that there are more than 270 unofficial crossing points between the two countries, according to the report from HRW.

Before transferring power to his successor Iván Duque last August 7, the outgoing president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2016, Juan Manuel Santos, granted temporary legal residency, valid for two years, to nearly 440,000 Venezuelan refugees. “The entire world is more horrified each day by what is happening in Venezuela,” Santos said on August 2, condemning the government in Caracas as “a regime which doesn’t listen and which remains in a state of total denial.”

Although it doesn’t share a border with the Venezuela, Peru is currently hosting close to 400,000 Venezuelan refugees, of which more than 126,000 are seeking asylum. More than 250,000 Venezuelans have sought refuge in Ecuador, of which at least 83,400 have obtained permission or an entry visa. Still further south, in Chile, more than 84,000 Venezuelans (as of December 2017) have received permission to reside in the country. In the case of Argentina, nearly 78,000 Venezuelans live in the country with legal permission.

Close to 100,000 Venezuelans live in the southern Caribbean, with the greatest number, 40,000, in Trinidad and Tobago, and another 20,000 in Aruba (a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands); at least 58,000 more have taken refuge in Brazil. Although this latter number is low compared to other countries, the new arrivals and the local population don’t always get along. In March and August, xenophobic incidents and attacks were reported, which have motivated the authorities of the state of Roraima to request that the border be closed, for other reasons as well.

In 2016, Roraima still had the third lowest homicide rate in all of Brazil, with a rate of 27.7 homicides for every 100,000 people; now, the state is the most dangerous one in the country. As Die Welt observes, it’s difficult to establish the proportion of migrants involved, since the number of solved homicide cases is less than 10 percent.

In an article published on Monday on the website of the EFE news agency, Brazilian president Michel Temer, who has decided to send the army to the border to guarantee order, underscored the country’s firm will to continue its humanitarian commitment and its welcoming of Venezuelan migrants.

Legal status

According to HRW, the Venezuelans who continue to travel to the assorted countries that welcome them — neighboring countries and those farther away — can be considered refugees based on current international treaties, in particular the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (also known as the Geneva Convention on Refugees) of 1951.

The Venezuelans are also protected under the principle of non-refoulement, which, as described in article 33 of the Geneva Convention, establishes that “no contracting state shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Also important is the Cartagena Declaration (1984), which — while not binding — has been integrated into the national laws or practices of 15 Latin American countries. The text extends the definition of refugee to all “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

The application of the Declaration to the situation of the Venezuelan refugees was confirmed in a preliminary sentence last August 6 handed down by Judge Rosa Weber, of the Federal Supreme Court of Brazil, the HRW report explains.

One of the ongoing problems is that many Venezuelans arrive in their destination countries without valid documents, either because they haven’t brought them or because they have expired. Many countries require, for example, a passport, but the Venezuelan authorities have shown themselves very reluctant to grant them. Not only can the time required to obtain one be biblical — up to two years, in fact — but they also cost up to $1,000 on the black market if you go to a “‘fixer’ with official connections,” according to the New York Times.

Pressure on Maduro

Faced with a lack of cooperation on the part of Maduro’s government to take action on the causes of the exodus, some countries are increasing pressure on Caracas, explains Die Welt. Ecuador, a former ally of Venezuela, is leaving the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (with the Spanish acronym ALBA), the German paper reports. ALBA is an organism created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

On his part, the new president of Colombia, Duque, has confirmed that his country will soon leave the Union of South American countries, or UNASUR, another organism very dear to Chávez. And the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roberto Ampuero, on Tuesday, September 4, defined UNASUR as a “leaderless organism” which is only distinguished by its “very high expenses.”

While the supporters of Caracas in Latin America can be counted on the fingers of one hand, because there are only three — Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua — the Venezuelan government denies the existence of a crisis. For vice-president Delcy Rodriguez, the current flow of migrants from her country is, in fact, “normal.” “There has been an attempt to convert a normal migratory flow into a humanitarian crisis in order to justify an international intervention in Venezuela,” she said on Monday, September 3. “We will not allow it.”

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