As the COVID pandemic wreaks havoc around the world, Juan – a Venezuelan asylum seeker in Peru, lost his job and struggled to get by. “We were left with nothing. We decided to go sell candy on the street, and that way we could buy food,” he said. Like Juan, the more than 5.4 million Venezuelans that have fled the societal and economic collapse in Venezuela are now suffering from the impact of COVID-19 in their host countries.
Most Venezuelans are currently hosted in Latin America and the Caribbean where the pandemic has brought new tragedies for displaced Venezuelans and their hosts alike. Latin America is one of the hardest hit regions by COVID-19. In Ecuador, Chile and Peru, the health systems are saturated. And in 2020 alone, more than 26 million people in Latin America lost their jobs. With increasing precarity, nations are struggling to keep up to provide for those in need.
Yet, the international community has yet to provide enough support for those countries hosting displaced Venezuelans. As of May, nearly half-way through the year, only 4.6 percent of funding needs for the Venezuelan humanitarian response for 2021 have been met. The international humanitarian response for Venezuelans pales in comparison to that of other displacement crises of a similar scale. For instance, in 2020, funding for Syrian refugees amounted to $3,150 per Syrian, a sharp contrast to the $265 per Venezuelan.
The world needs to urgently act. And there is an opportunity to step up.
On June 17, the Canadian government is hosting the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. The conference is an opportunity to mobilize much-needed resources for the Venezuelan response. Donors must boost their funding commitments and the United States and European countries must engage at the highest level, showing their responsibility towards refugees and other displaced persons. In the conference, donors must ensure that the resources pledged benefit Venezuelans and their hosts directly, by providing emergency humanitarian support, bolstering economic integration efforts, and promoting policies that will help regularize Venezuelans in their new communities.
Donors must support increased access to healthcare, including for COVID-19 testing and treatment. While vaccine rollout has been speedy and accessible in wealthier nations like the United States and Canada, many countries in Latin America are behind—and the pandemic is far from over. Therefore, such support is urgently needed both for Venezuelans and their hosts.
The lockdown measures initially meant to control the pandemic led to high rates of unemployment for Venezuelans, contributing to rising food insecurity and evictions. In countries like Colombia and Peru, Venezuelans were pushed to work in sectors that were particularly hit by the pandemic like hospitality and construction, or into jobs that were unsafe. Given the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on Venezuelans, the humanitarian needs are substantial. Donors must, therefore, fund initiatives that support Venezuelans with cash to pay for critical needs like food and shelter.
Donors must also increase support for efforts to integrate Venezuelans into their host communities and the labor market. Increased integration can help Venezuelans overcome the economic challenges posed by the pandemic, while also promoting greater economic recovery and growth in their host countries. Such measures would allow refugees to become more self-reliant, enabling them to contribute more fully to their host communities as skilled and motivated workers, employers, and entrepreneurs. Yet, despite the benefits linked to greater integration, donors have only funded around 0.29 percent of the sector needs. This provides donors with a meaningful opportunity to act.
The pandemic has also highlighted the stark gender disparities that Venezuelan women and girls face. Rates of gender-based violence during the pandemic skyrocketed. Venezuelan women and girls often face higher rates of riskbecause of vulnerabilities including a lack of status, exploitative labor conditions, and the need to irregularly cross borders to seek safety. This silent pandemic also requires urgent attention and action.
Funding such initiatives will only be effective in the long-term if they take place alongside efforts to provide documented status. Regularization is key to protect Venezuelans from vulnerability and abuse, and is essential to access key government services. While most Latin American countries have implemented some short-term documentation options for Venezuelans, many still remain in irregularity. Recently, Colombia stepped up in providing much-needed documentation for Venezuelans, allowing them to remain in the country for up to 10 years. Now, donors need to step up to support Colombia in hosting and integrating Venezuelans and support other countries in implementing similar measures.
With proper funding, international organizations and host governments can respond to the urgent needs of Venezuelans and make important steps to ensure that they integrate successfully and contribute more fully to their host communities. But if the world fails to act, host governments will struggle to keep up and Venezuelans will be left behind.
Martha Guerrero Ble is the Labor Market Access program associate at Refugees International.
Rachel Schmidtke is the Latin America advocate at Refugees International.
PHOTO CAPTION: Venezuelans and Colombian returnees line up to enter to Colombia from Venezuela near the border between Colombia and Venezuela on June 8, 2019 in Paraguachon, Colombia. Photo Credit: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images.