The Role of Neighboring Countries in the Venezuelan Migrant Crisis 

Unrest in Venezuela.

Venezuela’s dire economic and political situation has prompted an estimated five million citizens to flee the country. The worsening domestic crisis has prompted this migrant crisis, one that has largely been discounted, but that has significant implications.  Given the politics of international intervention into the region, the influx of migration into neighboring countries, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, have created important international security, diplomatic, and humanitarian concerns.

Juan Fernando Cristo, the immediate former Minister of the Interior of Colombia, tells the HPR , the migration crisis is one of the most dire humanitarian crises of our time, and the largest migration crisis in Latin American history. This wave of migration in the region is unprecedented and neighboring countries, lack the infrastructure necessary to accommodate for this influx of migrants in the region. For the first time, these countries in Latin America are finding it important to address both refugee and immigration policy. Many of the receiving developing countries in this region are beginning to develop immigration restrictions and policies to limit the Venezuelan migrants entering their country, with Peru being the most recent nation to do so. Due to the prolonged duration of the crisis, these nations, were initially very receptive of migrants- taking an average of 1,500 Venezuelans a day. However, now these nations, with their own economic struggles are beginning to turn away migrants for fear of the impacts the migrants have had on plummeting hourly wages and rising unemployment, as well as increasing crime rates. 

Prior to this crisis, the only Latin American country in this region with historical immigration patterns had been Venezuela, which took in approximately 4 million Colombians relative to its 27 million population in the 1980’s and in subsequent decades, prior to the economic and political crisis we are seeing today. The reversal of roles due to the economic crisis raises questions as to what the role of Latin American countries should be, how they can possibly sustain this new wave of migrants, what the economic and social impact on the receiving countries are, and how the international community can be better assisting these neighboring nations: primarily Colombia and Peru, which have taken the largest number of migrants, 1.2 million and 800,000, respectively. 

In part due to Venezuela’s history of taking in large populations of displaced Colombians and neighboring countries’ citizens alike, this current migration crisis has been alleviated through short-term “hospitality,” of many adjacent countries’ governments. But hospitality, is simply not enough. While the desire to assist the migrants remains pervasive throughout the region, fear and a lack of economic, social, and political resources have challenged these desires. Migration policies are necessary for countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in helping these new migrants assimilate to life in a new country, and in the investment in infrastructure that can help sustain this new population of people entering these countries. As the crisis deepens, and the Colombian government awaits international assistance in helping address their crises at the border, they remain committed to helping integrate the Venezuelan migrants into the Colombian economy rather than to establish shelters, the proposed alternative. As Former Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo has previously stated, the uncertainty of the crisis in Venezuela, and the lack of an immediate solution increases the need for local governments to provide long-term economic opportunities for  migrants in their countries. Given the severity of the political and economic conditions in Venezuela and the lack of end date in sight, temporary solutions are not enough.                                                                                                                     

The crisis of Venezuelan migrants has caused irreversible damage to the region, with those who received the most migrants being hardest hit. .  The once-booming economies of the Colombian-Venezuelan border, known as centers of commerce for citizens of both nations have become the most severely impacted. The economic crisis caused by the situation of Venezuela can best be reflected in Cúcuta, Colombia, the largest city on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and the 6th largest city in Colombia. Cúcuta was known as an important commercial center, it was the center of billion-dollar companies all over the city, as evidenced by its luxurious shopping centers and lifestyle. Its vibrant and booming economy encouraged the use of the bolivar, the main form of Venezuelan currency until it experienced rapid devaluation. The current economy at the border, particularly in Cúcuta, Colombia is emblematic of the devastation of the migrant crisis. The booming economies of border-towns in Colombia and Venezuela have deteriorated, and as the Colombian  economy struggles to account for more “informal” workers, workers whose income is not included in the GDP and who are best known as street vendors, etc., it is failing Colombian citizens. The economic downturn of Cúcuta is reflected in its current 40% poverty rate, a previously inconceivable notion given the wealthy history of the city.

The most striking images that help depict the graveness of the migrant crisis for receiving countries and their need to adapt to these unprecedented waves of migrants are the images of the newly established tents on Colombia’s border. The newly established tents are attempts at providing Venezuelan migrants with a lifeline to help sustain them as they flee from political and economic crisis. The creation of these migrant reception tents and centers in spite of the Colombian government’s refusal to establish refugee centers at the border highlight the severity of the living conditions of these displaced Venezuelans. It is evident that the sanctioning of Venezuela and other political tactics has failed to address the humanitarian crisis, of which many scholars, including Harvard Government Professor Steven Levitsky have stated is just as severe of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, and has had disastrous humanitarian impacts on the migrants and the citizens of these neighboring countries.

Juan Fernando Cristo stated, “Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are making a great effort to attend to the people coming in from Venezuela. I think that the United Nations, European Union, and the United States must create one unique foundation with one directive in order to better support the countries in Latin America”.  As the U.N begins to see the positive impact of its newly established refugee shelters on the Colombian-Venezuelan and Brazilian-Venezuelan border, the necessity of international cooperation in assisting the neighboring countries will become more salient. Prior to this initiative by the U.N, Venezuelan informal migrants were subjected to horrendous conditions and poverty, often homeless and famished upon arrival. While the status of these Venezuelan migrants has not been universally formalized, as they are not fleeing a war, and are in some countries not recognized as political refugees, the humanitarian crisis is not to be understated. The establishment of the U.N refugee centers in these neighboring countries’ borders not only provide shelter and food but also medical services and legal counseling to help those most vulnerable. The current receiving countries strive to assimilate and accommodate these new migrants, but the situation has been dire for most of them. Rising unemployment rates as well as lack of infrastructure and immigration policy has left many Latin American countries: Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru primarily with the lack of resources necessary to address the migrant crisis and to accomodate for them. The need for international assistance in addressing the migrant crisis is imminent, with organizations such as the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, recommending the UN or other international organizations/agencies providing emergency funds to these nation to better assist the government of these countries and fund the services they can provide: public health clinics, schooling, etc. for these Venezuelan migrants. 

While these Venezuelan migrants are not considered refugees across all of the neighboring countries that receive them, the 5 million that are expected to leave Venezuela have done so as a consequence of the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. The burden of assisting migrants from Venezuela has largely been on the governments of  neighboring countries, most heavily Colombia, countries that already lack the policies, infrastructure, and resources to assist migrants (or more accurately, refugees) since the exodus of Venezuelans began to skyrocket in 2013. 

A migrant crisis, no matter how it is politicized or framed,  should first and foremost be regarded as a humanitarian and not a political crisis. With the amount of migrants fleeing Venezuela yearly, and the economic crisis deepening, this crisis can not afford to be ignored, it is one of the most severe of our time and the involvement of the international community can play a great factor in alleviating the burden on these neighboring nations, but also in alleviating the severity of the conditions on the borders of Venezuela and these nations, where the humanitarian crisis is at its worst.


“For our nation” by ervega is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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