Latin America’s cauldron has been stirred once more. A continual flux of migrants – both within and between its nations – has long contributed to the region’s rich diversity. However, recent stimuli have seen flows increase around the region, most notably from Venezuela, causing headaches for its leaders.
Statements from both Brazil and Colombia’s presidents indicating a tightening of border controls have shined a spotlight on the extent of Venezuelan emigration, and on the implications of this exodus for Venezuela’s neighbours.
The unprecedented economic, political and social crisis that Venezuela is going through has left the country devastated. Real wages are worthless, with inflation set to reach 13,000% in 2018, according to IMF predictions. There are severe medicine and food shortages.
A recent study undertaken by three Venezuelan universities found that 8.2 million Venezuelans eat two meals a day or fewer; six out of 10 adults lost 11 kilograms in 2017; and 87% of the population now lives in poverty.
There seems to be no obvious way out of the crisis. With a disunited opposition saying it will not contest the elections scheduled for May this year, President Nicolás Maduro looks set to win another six-year term.
His government maintains that the country is not suffering a humanitarian crisis, and Maduro has warned Venezuelans leaving the country that they will be back within six months after failing to make it in capitalist economies.
Yet as they struggle to survive, many Venezuelans see no alternative but to emigrate. International media recount stories of people selling cherished possessions such as wedding rings to buy basic foodstuffs, or scrape together the cost of a bus passage out of the country.
The UNHCR estimates that over a million Venezuelans have left their country, although exact numbers are hard to establish and other estimates are much higher. The US receives the highest number of asylum-seekers – nearly 60,000 claims since 2014, and more than half of that in the last year.
Overall however, more Venezuelans emigrate to other South American countries, which they can enter as tourists without a visa.
The number of Venezuelans officially living in other South American countries has increased fivefold since 2015, rising from 84,000 to 629,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This number excludes refugees and asylum-seekers.
Colombia shares a 2,200-kilometre border with Venezuela, and is home to the highest number of migrants. In October 2017, 470,000 Venezuelans lived in the country, according to Migración Colombia’s official data. Only 202,000 of these were in a situation of regularity.
This number can only have increased, and is now believed to have surpassed half a million; although not all have stayed – 109,649 Venezuelans entered Colombia in December 2017, a number which has been steadily increasing each month.
Sharing the burden
Brazil, which also shares a border with Venezuela, is the country that receives the most asylum applications after the US: Venezuelans filed nearly 18,000 applications in 2017, up from less than 5,000 in 2014-16.
Colombia in particular also serves as a transition country, as Venezuelans pass through on their way to Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Ecuador recorded a net migration of 61,136 Venezuelans in 2017, and the UNHCR estimates that there are currently 93,000 Venezuelans in the Andean country; net migration to Peru in 2017 reached 68,070 according to official statistics.
Small Caribbean states have also seen an influx, with at least 60,000 Venezuelans estimated to be living in the Southern Caribbean as of October 2017.
As a sub-region, South America has always encouraged the free movement of its citizens. 70% of migration in South America is intra-regional; most of it is economic migration, where individuals cross borders in pursuit of work.
Venezuela itself used to be a primary migrant destination, attracting huge flows of Colombians fleeing their country’s internal armed conflict, and Ecuadoreans, searching for work following Ecuador’s economic crash at the turn of the 21st century.
Colombians and Ecuadoreans returning to their country of origin, some after decades of being settled in Venezuela, add to the outflow of migrants from the once-wealthy oil nation.
Responses from Venezuela’s neighbours have, overall, been positive. Most countries have created alternative residence permits for Venezuelans, such as the Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP) in Peru or Brazil’s revised residency permit.
Both give applicants temporary residence for one or two years and the right to work. Some of these permits are free to apply for, although others – such as Ecuador’s special visa for Venezuelans – come at a cost.
Earlier in February, Argentina’s migration authority announced a relaxation of the residency application process for Venezuelans specifically, taking into account the fact that some of the required documentation is hard to get hold of.
“We are simplifying the entry so that Venezuelans who are practically expelled from their country can come to Argentina to work and be part of our process of growth and development” said Rogelio Frigerio, Argentina’s Interior Minister.
A feeling of debt towards Venezuela for welcoming their own migration flows in the past seems in part to drive South Americans’ solidarity towards the failing state and its population.
“We cannot turn our back on a country that for years welcomed our fellow citizens”
Christian Kruger Sarmiento, Director of Migración Colombia
This sentiment has been echoed by Peru, which suffered an armed conflict in the 1990s, and Chile, whose citizens found refuge in Venezuela during the Pinochet era.
The warm welcome begins to cool
And yet, some countries are beginning to rethink their policies and tighten their borders, as they struggle with the sheer number of arrivals and social tensions arise.
Panama was the first to do so, imposing a visa for Venezuelans entering the country from 1 October 2017. President Juan Carlos Varela cited concerns for Panama’s security, economy and job market as justification.
Colombia and Brazil have been the latest to follow suit. President Santos announced during a visit to the border city of Cúcuta in February that no more mobility cards would be issued. In a similar move, during a visit to Boa Vista in the northern state of Roraima in Brazil, President Michel Temer also announced a tightening of security at the border.
Both Santos and Temer carefully avoided anti-immigrant rhetoric, holding Nicolás Maduro’s government solely responsible for the plight of Venezuelans. However as the influx of people puts pressure on public services and local economies, both Colombian and Brazilian frontier regions have seen outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan sentiment. An arson attack on houses sheltering Venezuelans in Boa Vista in early February left three injured, including a young child.
A new political issue?
With elections due in a number of Latin American countries this year, including Colombia and Brazil, the issue of Venezuelan migration could become politically sensitive. Some candidates will no doubt exploit voters’ fears and any nascent anti-immigrant sentiments.
For example, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing candidate running on a ‘law-and-order platform’, has a long and unsavoury history of criticising migrants. Last year he spoke out against the country’s new immigration law, which aims to facilitate certain processes and includes a humanitarian visa category.
In Chile, recently-inaugurated President Sebastián Piñera is seen by some critics as having campaigned on an anti-immigration platform. Chile has seen the highest increase in immigrants in the region, and migration was an important issue in last year’s election.
A nascent challenge
The challenges ahead are numerous, and the tide of migrants will unlikely be turned. Policies will need not only to address the question of how to regulate migration and take the grievances of the electorate into account, but also the welfare of Venezuelans – many of whom are in particularly vulnerable situations.
With no end in sight to the Venezuelan crisis – and other causes of migration such as extreme weather events becoming more frequent – the number of migrants in South America is set to keep on rising. Perhaps it is time for a truly coordinated regional response.