Venezuela Crisis Straining Regional Stability
Print Issue: July 2020
Venezuela entered 2020 at the center of the world’s worst refugee crisis. Millions of Venezuelans continued to flee poverty, political unrest, and violence in their home country, with many landing in neighboring countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile—the four nations that have absorbed the most people.
By some estimates, Venezuelans had been leaving their county at a rate of 4,000 to 5,000 people per day. As of March 2020, the number of Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers stood at 4.9 million, according to statistics from the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V).
The outflux heightened concerns about the potential destabilizing impact that the mass resettling could have on the region.
“Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate and impact the security and stability of the region,” wrote experts Arianna Kohan and Moises Rendon in a report on Venezuela issued earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, and the outflow of Venezuelans was reduced by coronavirus-related closed borders and lockdowns. Colombia, for example, which received an estimated 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants, closed its border with Venezuela in March 2020.
Moreover, some Venezuelans who had left their homeland decided to return. By April 2020, these returning refugees were arriving at an approximate rate of up to 500 per day, according to humanitarian group estimates.
But although the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the flow of refugees, it is not expected to end it as the country continues to endure several layers of problems.
“Venezuelans are fleeing a profound economic and political crisis, characterized by the systematic violation of human rights and a deepening humanitarian emergency,” wrote Wilson Center analyst Oriana Van Praag in the recent report Understanding the Venezuelan Refugee Crisis.
Politically, unrest continues. Nicholas Maduro claimed the country’s presidency in 2019, but his election was seen by many as unfair and tainted. More than 50 nations, including the United States, have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president.
Economically, many Venezuelans have struggled for the last several years against wrenching poverty, including severe shortages of food and clean water. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Venezuelan economy contracted 45 percent between 2013 and 2018, and then an additional 25 percent in 2019.
Infrastructure and health services have also badly deteriorated; in 2019, there were 23,860 power failures nationwide between January and May, an average of 158 a day, according to a nongovernmental organization (NGO) estimate.
Venezuelans are “running from a crisis that has dragged on for years with no end in sight,” wrote Latin American affairs expert Jorge G. Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed.
Venezuelans are also fleeing high levels of insecurity and violence. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, there were 81.4 violent deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, the highest rate in Latin America and ahead of El Salvador and Honduras, which by comparison had homicide rates of 51 and 40 per 100,000 people, respectively. The organization also found violence to be endemic in 88 percent of Venezuelan municipalities. Various estimates suggest that Venezuela has one of the highest kidnapping rates in Latin America.
For countries receiving these fleeing Venezuelans, one factor contributing to potential instability is a lack of financial support from the international community for resettlement costs.
For example, in response to the recent Syrian refugee crisis, in which more than 6 million people were displaced between 2011 and 2018, the international community contributed more than $7 billion over four years for response efforts. But for the Venezuelan crisis, international response contribution over four years has been just $580 million.
“Despite its magnitude, the Venezuelan crisis has only received a fraction of the international attention and funding dedicated to other conflicts, and is still seen as regional problem,” Van Praag wrote.
Herbert Calderon, CPP, PCI, PSP, loss prevention manager with Gloria Group in Lima, Peru, says the Venezuela situation poses a few challenges for regional security. “And with the pandemic, the problems are increased,” says Calderon, who is ASIS senior regional vice president for Region 8C.
That is partly because the challenging living conditions in Venezuela can increase the chance of coronavirus infection, which an infected person could then bring to another country, Calderon says. In Peru, the government extended a temporary work permit to arriving Venezuelans in 2017, and then roughly 500,000 Venezuelans entered their new country in 2018. As of May 2020, the total number of Venezuelans in Peru is estimated at around 860,000.
In addition, many poverty-stricken Venezuelans are turning to theft and looting to survive. This creates another challenge that local law enforcement has to deal with. In Peru, the police have taken actions against the vandals, Calderon says. For the time being, the coronavirus lockdown has reduced that type of crime in general, due to the closure of businesses and a patrol-enforced curfew.
And although some statistics show that Venezuelan migrants are no more likely to commit crimes than any other residents, experts say the greater competition for working class jobs that the new populations bring has increased another source of potential instability: anti-immigrant sentiment.
For example, in Colombia, which has received more Venezuelans than any country, some residents publicly demonstrated against plans to house migrants in sports facilities. And false reports of Venezuelans trying to break into gated residential areas spread on social media, spurring some deportations. A Gallup poll in December found that Colombians’ attitudes toward the Venezuelan newcomers have shifted from a welcoming stance to regarding them as a problem.
The pandemic has heightened this tension in some ways. The mayor of the Colombian city of Yopal has called migrants a burden who are responsible for the city’s security and health problems. And with countries like Ecuador and Peru putting up more entry barriers due to the coronavirus, some experts say newer Venezuelan refugees may have to find other places to land, which could cause the refugee crisis and related challenges to spill over to other regions.