Over the last few years, more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, creating a regional humanitarian emergency. On Wednesday, January 30, Refugees International and Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) hosted an event to look at how the response to the ever-growing Venezuelan displacement crisis can be improved at the national, regional, and international level. Based on a recent field mission to the region, Refugees International presented its findings and recommendations for improving the response to the crisis in the contexts of Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago.
President, Refugees International
Consultant, Refugees International
Assistant Director for Venezuela, Washington Office on Latin America
Director for Drug Policy and the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America
Refugees International’s President Eric Schwartz’s opening remarks as prepared:
Over the last couple of weeks, events in Venezuela have filled the headlines. However, for those of us here today, the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis has long been a matter of urgent concern. The number of Venezuelans who have sought refuge in the region now stands at more than three million. This makes it one of the largest displacement crises in the world today – and the largest in the region’s history. And that number is expected to rise.
Indeed, while Venezuelan politics is in flux, the end to the displacement crisis is not in sight. Most Venezuelan refugees and migrants with whom our teams spoke in Colombia and Trinidad thought it would take decades to rebuild the country. None expected to be able to return soon.
That sobering reality only underscores the imperative that we get the humanitarian response right. To be effective, that response must be robust at the national level in host countries. But it must also be coordinated and harmonized across the region if we are to provide meaningful protection to vulnerable Venezuelans. To this end, in October, Refugees International launched a six-month effort to assess the situation of Venezuelans in various host countries. Our first missions traveled to Colombia and Trinidad. There, the RI teams saw the dramatic difference in the nature of the challenges and responses in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Colombia, the government has taken a generous approach in its response to an influx of over one million Venezuelans. There is no doubt that gaps remain. But Colombia’s ability to respond is constrained not only by limited resources, but by the fact that some seven million Colombians remain displaced from the civil war. The displaced from both countries often reside in the same communities and compete for the same resources. In short, the crises are colliding. Colombia needs donor support to sustain – and, indeed, expand – its response in order to provide the protections and assistance for all the displaced inside its borders.
Trinidad and Tobago
Meanwhile, in Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelans are treated as undocumented migrants. They lack any means of regularizing their status. As such, they live under the constant threat of detention and deportation. The government has done little to support them and has even violated its obligations under international law. Xenophobia is widespread and women and girls – who are at great risk of gender-based violence and trafficking – are particularly vulnerable. Just last week, these dismal conditions drove Venezuelans to the streets in protest.
A regional response in the making
Our fieldwork highlights the disparities in responses across Latin America and the Caribbean. Discrepancies in the rights and services available, sudden changes in national policy, and inadequate access to information – all these issues exacerbate the vulnerability of displaced Venezuelans. A new UNHCR-IOM regional platform led by Eduardo Stein is working to improve coordination. So is the Quito Process which brings together Venezuela’s neighbors at a diplomatic level. But more work remains to be done.
The bottom line is that the Venezuela refugee and migrant crisis will be with us for years to come. Our collective humanitarian response must of course be tailored to the specific conditions of individual host countries. However, some lessons are already clear.
First, legal status matters. Host countries must create channels for Venezuelans to regularize their status and access rights and services – not just in name, but in practice.
Second, regional coordination is essential. Quito and the UNHCR-IOM platform are steps in the right direction, but they will need sustained leadership to succeed.
Third, an effective response must address immediate humanitarian needs but also longer-term solutions. It will take years for Venezuela to repair the damage of the last decade. In the interim, millions of Venezuelans in neighboring countries will need our help.
Fourth, and to that end, donors must continue to step up. In addition to money, donors should provide technical assistance to countries where Venezuelans have sought refuge. They can also help those countries to develop strong asylum and protection systems.
Let me end by thanking WOLA for hosting this important discussion at such a critical time, and for the opportunity to share our insights and think together about the way forward.