Human Rights Watch calls for coordinated regional response to Venezuela migration crisis

  1. Regional governments might start taking harder line against Venezuelan migrants and refugees
  2. HRW recommends creating a region-wide temporary protection program to give Venezuelans legal status
  3. UNHCR: "A significant number of Venezuelans in host countries are in need of international refugee protection"
  4. Top Venezuelan officials deny the country is undergoing a humanitarian crisis

Governments in the Americas should join forces to devise a coordinated response to the Venezuelan exodus that “has generated the largest migration crisis of its kind in recent Latin American history,” according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published on September 3.

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Regional governments, once welcoming to Venezuelan migrants, are being strained by the growing influx. Peru and Ecuador recently proposed changing entry requirements for Venezuelans. Brazil sent soldiers to its northern border to “guarantee law and order” after Venezuelan migrant camps were attacked by locals.

The report coincides with the start of a summit in Quito, Ecuador, where regional governments met (Bloomberg) to coordinate a response to the challenges posed by mass Venezuelan emigration. The Organization of American States (OAS) will meet for another Venezuela-focused meeting on September 5.

HRW’s publication highlights the main challenges that fleeing Venezuelans face, and praises the region’s response so far. But it warns against growing regional discontent against Venezuelans, and provides recommendations on how to deal with the inflow of migrants and refugees from the crisis-hit country.

Among its main recommendations are: creating a region-wide temporary protection program to give Venezuelans legal status; building a regional mechanism to share responsibilities and costs associated with the mass emigration; and adopting and enforcing targeted sanctions against top Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses.

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“While many governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome fleeing Venezuelans, the growing scale of the crisis requires a uniform, collective response,” said HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco. “Governments should adopt a consistent response to ensure people forced to flee Venezuela get the protection they need to start anew.”

Juan Carlos Murillo, the United Nations refugee agency’s (UNHCR) deputy director of the Americas, told WikiTribune in a written statement that at least of 5,000 Venezuelans are leaving their country every day. Over 2.3 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2014, he said.

“While not all Venezuelans may be refugees, it is evident that a significant number of Venezuelans in host countries are in need of international refugee protection,” Murillo wrote. “From our perspective, a regional coordinated and comprehensive approach would allow to find solutions to the current situation to provide protection to Venezuelans, as well as support and strengthen their host communities.”

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly said Venezuela is the victim of U.S.-backed “economic warfare.” Top Venezuelan officials deny that the country is undergoing a humanitarian crisis.

People ‘sell their fridge to buy a ticket to the border’

Tamara Taraciuk, HRW’s senior Americas researcher and author of the report, told WikiTribune the flow of Venezuelans will “definitely increase” if the situation there remains the same.

“When you go to the border and you talk to the Venezuelans fleeing, you see people that are desperate,” she said. “They sell their fridge or their cellphones to buy a bus ticket to the border and they don’t really know what they’re going to do afterward.

“Despite that level of desperation and the very difficult conditions in which they live, they’re still better off outside Venezuela than in Venezuela.”

The United Nations estimates that as of June 2018 some 2.3 million Venezuelans – from a total of 32.8 million – are living abroad because of severe shortages of basic goods including food, medicines and medical supplies.

Eighty-seven percent of Venezuelan households were living under the poverty line in 2017 compared with 48 percent in 2014, according to the National Survey on Living Conditions (in Spanish), a yearly study conducted by three major Venezuelan universities. Last year, 61 percent of Venezuelan households were living in extreme poverty.

Formerly eradicated diseases like measles (Miami Herald), malaria (New York Times), tuberculosis (New York Times) and diphtheria have made a sudden and aggressive comeback.

HRW’s report also says Venezuelans are fleeing due to spiraling rates of violent crime, hyperinflation and a “ruthless government crackdown,” which has led to thousands of arbitrary detentions and human rights violations.

Read more Venezuela coverage on WikiTribune: “Detained, disappeared, and tortured — for tweeting — in Venezuela“; “Venezuelans fleeing home turn to Argentina for employment and stability”; “Soccer save: How karma (or coincidence) kicked in to rescue a struggling immigrant.”

Where are Venezuelans heading?

Ninety percent of the Venezuelans who’ve left the country since 2015 are heading to other South American countries, according to the International Organization for Migration. From 2014 to 2018, the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers reached almost 300,000, according to the UNHCR. Another 586,000 Venezuelans are being granted other forms of legal stay. This means that over a million Venezuelans are in an irregular legal situation – they can’t get work visas or access basic public services. HRW also warns these people are more vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and abuse.

According to the report, the countries hosting the largest number of Venezuelans are: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, the United States, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominican Republic.

“Venezuela opened its doors to people fleeing South America’s dictatorships and internal conflicts in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Vivanco. “Its neighbors now have the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for the Venezuelan people, and governments meeting in Quito this week to discuss the Venezuelan exodus should stand up to the task.”

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    Juan Carlos Murillo (UNHCR) full statement:

    1. What’s UNHCR position on the current migration situation in Venezuela?

    Based on data from governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, UNHCR estimates that at least 5,000 Venezuelans continue to leave their country on a daily basis. Based on government figures, over 2.3 million Venezuelan nationals have entered countries in the region and beyond since 2014.

    While not all Venezuelans may be refugees, it is evident that a significant number of Venezuelans in host countries are in need of international refugee protection. Within this context, there is an acute need for access to predictable legal status, documentation, shelter, access to health care and other basic services.

    From our perspective, a regional coordinated and comprehensive approach would allow to find solutions to the current situation to provide protection to Venezuelans, as well as support and strengthen their host communities.

    1. Does UNHCR agree with Amnesty International in that “the Cartagena definition of a refugee should be activated to address the Venezuela refugee crisis”?

    According to border visits and population studies we’ve conducted in the region (Americas), many Venezuelans are leaving their country for a variety of reasons, including their beliefs and personal traits, persecution, insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine and essential services, as well as loss of means of survival. This shows that while not all Venezuelans are refugees, a significant proportion are in need of international protection and could qualify as refugees under international, regional and national legal frameworks.

    UNHCR issued a Guidance Note in March 2018 to provide host governments with guidance on how to provide support and protection to Venezuelans increasingly arriving in their countries. It is based on regional instruments such as the Cartagena Declaration, which set a framework unique to Latin America rooted in solidarity and responsibility sharing, and incorporated in the legal framework of 15 countries in the region.

    UNHCR’s guidance note encourages States to ensure Venezuelans have access to territory and refugee procedures. In addition, UNHCR welcomes and calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses for the Venezuelan people, such as alternative legal stay arrangements, including visas or temporary residence permits, as well as other regularization programmes, which guarantee access to the basic rights of health care, education, family unity, freedom of movement, shelter and the right to work.

    1. How does the UNHCR respond to Venezuelan officials’ claims that “Venezuelan migrants have been subjected in countries of the region… to declare themselves as refugees before the UNHCR”?

    UNHCR’s mandate as a humanitarian and nonpolitical international organization is to work to protect and find solutions for people in need of international protection, so we are addressing the needs of Venezuelan refugees and those seeking international protection, as we do with people from other nationalities.

    UNHCR does not recognize the refugee status in the region, this is the competence of the Governments in Latin America and Caribbean.

    1. According to UNHCR’s Venezuela Operational Portal, the number of Venezuelan asylum-seekers from 2014-2018 is almost 300k Venezuelans, with another 586k enjoying other forms of legal stay. That leaves almost 1.5 million (from a total of 2.3 million, according to the UN) Venezuelans in irregular legal situation. Does the UNHCR have a concrete estimate of how many of these Venezuelans might qualify for refugee status?

    UNHCR provides guidance and orientation to people who might be in need of international protection in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as to Governments who are receiving and hosting them. However, it is Governments who establish status determination procedures to decide a person’s legal standing and rights in accordance to their own legal systems. Therefore UNHCR only uses the official figures of asylum-seekers shared by Governments.

    1. Does the UNHCR expect Venezuelan emigration to increase, decrease, or stabilize over the next 12 months? If an increase, which countries are most likely to be affected by the influx of Venezuelans?

    As a humanitarian and nonpolitical international organization, UNHCR is assisting governments to complement and enhance their operational responses to increasing needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants. We remain ready to continue supporting those efforts as needed.

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