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How to Address Venezuela's Refugee Crisis

Venezuela's exodus requires a coordinated regional response.
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated

The scenes of an angry mob of Brazilians harassing Venezuelan refugees and burning their belongings in the border town of Pacaraima were appalling. While the Brazilian crowd was chanting the national anthem, over 1,000 Venezuelans, protected by Brazilian police, fled across the border back into their ravaged country. Ciro Gomes, a presidential candidate, said he felt “ashamed of being Brazilian” upon hearing the news. 

A growing number of Brazilian right-wing YouTubers and bloggers are spreading fake news that the Venezuelan refugee crisis is actually a plot to infiltrate communists into Brazil. Such ideas will reach thousands of citizens through WhatsApp messages, making adoption of sensible refugee policies more politically costly. With an election looming, opportunists will find such a narrative irresistible, a handy scapegoat to externalize the blame for all sorts of domestic problems. 

In other countries, too, tensions are rising. Several governments, including those of Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Colombia, announced they would require Venezuelan newcomers to present a passport at the border. This would be a particularly draconian measure considering that even toilet paper has been scarce in the Bolivarian republic for years. (A judge has since rescinded the measure in Ecuador.)

The exodus from Venezuela is one of the largest migratory movements in Latin American history, and the catastrophe is now gaining global attention. More than 2 million Venezuelans have fled in recent years, compared to the 1.8 million refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2015. Maduro's economic reforms – particularly a dramatic increase of the minimum wage – are likely to have a negative effect on employment, further increasing the number of those leaving Venezuela. 

In addition, many Venezuelans who have already migrated will bring their families along in the coming years once their financial circumstances have stabilized. While Spain and the United States receive an influx of well-off Venezuelans, it is South America, hosting poorer and more desperate newcomers, that must prepare for the bulk of the arrivals.

There are some hopeful signs. NGOs across the continent have set up initiatives to help refugees. Brave journalists report on the unspeakable misery Venezuelans have experienced at home, helping readers in neighboring countries develop greater empathy. In a particularly commendable decision, Colombia’s former President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree, during one of his last decisions in office, allowing more than 400,000 undocumented Venezuelans to permanently stay in Colombia.

Brazil’s President Michel Temer and Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes have rejected calls to “close the border” to fleeing Venezuelans. Doing so, in any case, would be both illegal and futile: Given that Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil are each more than 1000 miles long, closed points of entry would just encourage more undocumented migration.

Merely rejecting populist measures and calling for empathy will not be enough. What South American governments urgently need is a coherent regional strategy to address one of the most complex humanitarian and political challenges in years. The implications for human rights, employment, border security and the struggle against organized crime could be profound.

Thousands of Venezuelan migrants – often unaware of their rights – have already been victims of human rights abuses across the region. The mere perception of chaos on television screens can lead voters to choose xenophobic candidates, even if they have never met a Venezuelan in person. Less than 0.05 percent of people living in Brazil today are Venezuelans – and yet the lack of a coherent strategy by the federal government leads many Brazilians to believe many more are already in the country. This tendency is largely fueled by bombastic language on social media of "waves" or "invasions" of migrants.

In a much-needed move, the Ecuadorean government has called for a regional summit in September to discuss the situation with heads of state from around Latin America. First of all, governments should commit to adopting the same strategy and bureaucratic requirements at their borders, standardizing the process of regularizing migrants. Secondly, they should develop a single monitoring system. With the help of their embassies in Caracas, it is possible to gather data and develop models to anticipate how many Venezuelans will leave each month – and thus better prepare public services like schools, hospitals and police in border regions. Thirdly, governments in the region should create a regional fund of several hundred million dollars to compensate those regions most affected by the crisis. At a time of economic hardship, that may seem like a lot, but the cost of inaction would be even higher. 

Inaction would risk endangering stability in border regions, leading to the rise of xenophobia that could undermine regional integration for years to come, and delaying the successful economic integration of Venezuelans into their host societies. Finally, each government should name special envoys who meet monthly to oversee the entire process and discuss best practices vis-à-vis integrating newcomers.  

“Interiorization,” a scheme by which the Brazilian government is seeking to distribute Venezuelans across its territory, is a good first step. Even so, it moves far too slowly to reduce current tensions in Roraima, the border state most affected. Such debates should involve specialists from countries around the world, some of which have successfully integrated migrants into their societies and economies. If emigration can distribute evenly across the continent, South America will succeed in addressing the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

While adapting to the new reality will require political leadership and vision, the recent violent incident in Pacaraima creates an opportunity. It has forced both governments and societies across the continent to stop looking the other way and finally begin a process of coming to terms with the fact that Latin America is facing the largest migratory crisis in living memory. Unless governments in the region come together to develop a coherent strategy, Venezuela's crisis will negatively affect the entire continent.

This article was updated to reflect recent developments in Ecuador's immigration policy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oliver Stuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order (2015) and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order (2016).
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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