Those who migrate from a particular state en masse have generally been recognized by the United Nations using two distinct categories: refugees and migrants. A refugee is defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention as “someone with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion”. A migrant, meanwhile, is defined by the UNHCR as “someone who voluntarily leaves his or her country of origin to seek a better life and who does not face impediments to returning home”.
Yet for the five million people who have fled from Venezuela since 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration, neither of those definitions accurately describes their circumstances. PBS Frontline News says that mass migration from Venezuela has been driven by a combination of political instability and shortages in food, water, and medicine.
As a result, the UNHCR has asked the international community to recognize those leaving Venezuela as refugees according to a broader definition introduced in the Cartagena Declaration of 1984, according to the Wilson Center. This instrument, which is specific to Latin-America, seeks to protect “persons who have fled their country because their lives, security 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.”
Economic negligence is partly to blame for the crisis. Although Venezuela’s expansive crude oil reserves once defined the country as one of the wealthiest states in Latin America, its economy has taken a major hit from mismanagement and U.S. sanctions, The New York Times reports. These sanctions have forced the majority of oil companies to stop drilling for or purchasing Venezuelan oil. “Venezuela’s days as a petrostate,” stated Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at a political risk consultancy known as Eurasia Group, “are gone.”
Throughout the country, hyperinflation has caused severe food and water shortages, resulting in most of the population being malnourished. However, the government under President Maduro has refused humanitarian aid from the U.S. and other nations, stating that “Venezuelans are not beggars,” PBS Frontline News reports. This has ignited mass protests throughout the country which have been met with violent repression from the government.
The government has provided food on an irregular basis – about once a month – through CLAP boxes, according to the Wilson Center. The price for these boxes, stocked with just eight days’ worth of food, has increased by over 50 percent last year. Citizens must have a carnet de la patria, or Fatherland card, to collect a box. These cards are the same ones used for voting, so people who express political opinions that are opposed to the regime do not receive a box. This is method is also used by President Maduro to coerce voters during election season.
Venezuelans who do manage to leave the country have largely stayed within South America. Colombia currently has the most refugees at 1.8 million, according to BBC News, and they expect 200,000 more by the end of this year. Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Brazil have also taken in several hundred thousand refugees.
With the rise of COVID-19, migration routes that refugees used in the past have grown much more dangerous, BBC News reports. Truck drivers have been less willing to offer free rides, shelters along main routes have been forced to close by municipal governments to avoid large indoor gatherings, and many foreign governments have closed their land borders. Social perceptions have also developed that refugees are likely to be infected with COVID-19, making many people hesitant to help them.
There is also a perception that Venezuelan immigrants drive crime rates up in the countries they enter. However, Brookings found that this is typically not the case. In Chile, for example, 0.7 percent of people indicted for all crimes were Venezuelan, despite making up 2.4 percent of the population. In Colombia, Venezuelans make up 5.4 percent of those who commit crimes, though they comprise 3.2 percent of the population, indicating that crime is more likely in places where migrants cannot find .