Living under the government of President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelans face political repression, extreme shortages of food and medicine, lack of social services, and economic collapse. Three million of them – or about 10 percent of the population – have fled the country. The vast majority have sought refuge in the Americas, where host states are struggling with the unprecedented influx.
Various actors have sought to respond to this rapidly emerging crisis. The UN set up the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, introducing a new model for agency coordination across the region. This Regional Platform, co-led by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has established a network of subsidiary National Platforms in the major host countries to coordinate the response on the ground. At the regional level, the Organization of American States (OAS) established a Working Group to Address the Regional Crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees. Latin American states have come together through the Quito Process – a series of diplomatic meetings designed to help coordinate the response of countries in the region to the crisis. Donors, including the United States, have provided bilateral assistance.
Nevertheless, the emergency has not received international attention and donor support commensurate with its magnitude. Moreover, although many host governments in the Americas have made commendable efforts to accommodate arriving Venezuelans, they have yet to fully realize a regional approach to what is very much a regional crisis. Requirements for entry differ across host countries, shared standards for residence and work permits do not exist, and there is no coordinated system for family reunification across borders.
At the end of 2018, Refugees International (RI) launched the first in a series of missions to assess the situation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in various host countries. An RI team first traveled to Colombia, the country most affected by the crisis. Colombia has received more than one million Venezuelans. The government’s response has been both impressive and commendable. This is particularly true at a time when an increasing number of nations around the world are closing their borders to refugees and migrants. Colombia has offered temporary legal status and the right to work to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans there. Still, many remain without regular status and unable to access essential services.
Moreover, despite a 2016 peace agreement, Colombia continues to suffer from internal conflict. Almost 8 million Colombians remain internally displaced and the number of civilians affected by the internal violence is once again on the rise. For years, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has led the international effort to meet humanitarian needs resulting from the civil war. However, OCHA began winding down its presence in 2016. Now, the influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants has accelerated this shift of resources away from Colombia’s conflict-affected and internally displaced persons (IDPs), as international donors and humanitarians mobilize to respond to the new challenges.
However, as Venezuelans arrive in areas dominated by armed groups, the lines between at-risk populations have blurred and the humanitarian consequences exacerbated for all. Although the joint leadership of UNHCR and IOM in the regional response is a positive step, reducing OCHA’s presence in Colombia at this time is misguided. Many humanitarians with whom RI spoke warned that a vacuum would be left, denying essential attention and resources for the victims of Colombia’s continuing internal conflict.
As these two crises collide, all three UN bodies will need to work together to coordinate and integrate their collective efforts to reduce suffering. OCHA should reverse its decision to reduce its presence in Colombia. Donors and humanitarians should reinvigorate support for Colombians affected by the civil war. At the same time, a major injection of donor support for Colombia’s overstretched social services and the UN’s regional funding appeal are essential to ensure that state’s generous approach toward Venezuelans can be sustained.
The Colombian government should:
- Continue to play a leading role in international efforts to achieve a truly regional approach to the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis. Specifically, engagement in the ongoing Quito Process should lead to the development of stronger integration efforts, harmonized entry requirements, shared standards for residence and work permits, and a coordinated system to enable family reunification across borders.
- Apply the Cartagena Declaration definition of refugees on a prima facie basis to Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia, in concert with neighboring host countries. This regional declaration, to which Colombia is a party, broadens the definition of a refugee beyond that of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to cover those fleeing a series of additional circumstances, including those “which have seriously disturbed public order.” In parallel, the government must also strengthen its asylum system.
- With or without formal application of the Cartagena Declaration, open a continuous registration and regularization process for all Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Colombia. The government should provide clear information to Venezuelans on how to register and to both Venezuelans and Colombian host communities on what rights and responsibilities regularization accords. The government must work with local partners to disseminate this information.
- Increase support for vulnerable groups who have been displaced by the crisis in Venezuela. Targeted assistance is needed particularly for indigenous groups such as the Wayuu and Yukpa.
The international donor community should:
- Fund the UN’s recent request for $738 million to respond to the Venezuela situation, as presented in the Global Humanitarian Appeal for 2019.
- Support ongoing regional efforts to achieve a more harmonized approach to the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis. This includes providing diplomatic, financial, and technical support to Colombia as it plays a leadership role.
- Increase funding to meet the humanitarian needs of the rising number of victims of new outbreaks of violence in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict, as well as the needs of the almost 8 million people who remain internally displaced. Support the state entities charged with organizing this response.
The United Nations should:
- Ensure that sufficient resources are directed to victims of the ongoing Colombian armed conflict. The fact that resources are being increasingly directed to Venezuelans at the expense of displaced Colombians needlessly exacerbates suffering. Public awareness of this trend could stoke xenophobia and undercut the peace agreement.
- Reverse the decision to reduce OCHA’s staffing in Colombia. With humanitarian indicators worsening, OCHA’s capacity and expertise are essential for sustaining the attention and resources needed to address Colombia’s internal humanitarian crisis.
- Establish a dotted reporting line for the new National Platform in Colombia to the United Nations Humanitarian Country Team in order to strengthen the coordination and integration of relief efforts for Venezuelans and conflict-affected Colombians in areas where these populations co-exist.
- Ensure that the National Platform engages with civil society organizations in close coordination with the government; rely on independent field-based information management systems to develop appeals; and play a strong advocacy role with the Colombian government.
- Ensure that international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working in Colombia to assist Venezuelans provide support for integration in urban areas.
- Include more development-focused agencies in the National Platform in order to support the focus on longer-term integration.
At home, Venezuelans face mounting repression; a dramatic decline in social services; the failure of state institutions; widespread violence; exorbitant inflation; and a severe shortage of basic goods, including food and medicine. So it comes as no surprise that the exodus of Venezuelans from their own country has escalated over the past year. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Migration Agency (IOM) announced in November 2018 that there were 3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide. That figure is expected to continue rising, so that “an estimated 3.6 million people will be in need of assistance and protection [in 2019], with no prospects for return in the short to medium term.” The vast majority of Venezuelans have sought refuge within the region, creating an unprecedented challenge. As UNHCR’s regional representative for the United States and the Caribbean explained, “In its modern history, Latin America has never experienced an exodus of this dimension.”
In October 2018, Refugees International (RI) launched the first in a series of missions to assess the situation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in various host countries. An RI team first traveled to Colombia, the country most affected by the crisis. During its mission, the RI team visited Bogotá; Riohacha and Maicao, coastal cities on the northeastern border with Venezuela; Pasto and Ipiales, on Colombia’s southwestern border with Ecuador; and Cúcuta, another northeastern border city in Norte de Santander department and a focal point of the response. The team met with representatives of the national and local governments; multiple UN agencies; international and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and affected persons, including Venezuelans, displaced Colombians, and members of the Yukpa indigenous group.
The Regional Response in Latin America
The Colombian government is playing a leading role in calling for a regional agreement on a more harmonized approach to this crisis. An official of Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told RI, “We want to show the world this is possible – not to respond like the United States and Europe. We are working on agreeing on principles, such as that no one should close their border without informing and agreeing with the others.”
The Quito Process has an important role to play in this. In September 2018, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay met in Quito, Ecuador to exchange information and best practices regarding the crisis of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region. The meeting led to the adoption of the Declaration of Quito on Human Mobility of Venezuelan Citizens in the Region (“Quito I”), a commitment laying the foundations for a more coordinated response. After a subsequent meeting on November 22 and 23, 2018 (“Quito II”), Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay adopted a regional Plan of Action, by which they committed, inter alia, to facilitate Venezuelans’ social and economic integration in the region by improving regularization processes. While a promising show of good will, this process will only prove meaningful insofar as participating states act to implement the regional plan and as more states agree to its adoption.
For certain, the ad hoc nature of the response to date has had significant consequences for Venezuelans. Each government has its own policies, often with different parameters for granting legal entry, residency, and access to basic services. Moreover, these policies frequently change with little or no notice. As a result, Venezuelans face a complex landscape of shifting requirements and opportunities, complicating their ability to make informed decisions in seeking refuge. Furthermore, some host countries have recently begun to make it more difficult for Venezuelans to apply for legal status. These changing standards are particularly problematic for families trying to reunite. Children are often stranded because they suddenly lack the necessary documentation to reach their relatives in other countries.
The challenge is readily on display in Colombia. For example, the RI team witnessed firsthand the impact of Peru’s announcement that Venezuelans arriving after October 31, 2018, would no longer be eligible for Peru’s one-year temporary residence and work permit. The news spurred a sudden mass movement of Venezuelans through Colombia to the Ecuadorian border, where they sought to continue onward to Peru before the deadline. The RI team observed chaotic scenes in Ipiales, a crossing point on Colombia’s border with Ecuador, on October 28, 2018. About 4,000 to 5,000 people – more than double the usual daily numbers – were estimated to be in line to depart Colombia. Afraid to miss their chance, many braved hypothermia while waiting outside overnight rather than give up their place in line to find shelter. The scenes recalled a similar problem that arose in August 2018, when Ecuador changed its entry requirements.
To address these challenges, countries in the region should harmonize entry requirements, develop regional agreements on principles and standards for residence and work permits, and facilitate family reunification across borders. Importantly, the requirements should be flexible enough to account for the reality that many Venezuelans are unable to obtain or renew their passports. Expired passports, identity cards (cédulas), or other official documents should be broadly accepted at border crossing and registration points.
Although some Venezuelans are fleeing targeted political persecution, a large proportion is escaping dire economic and social conditions. This latter group may not be eligible for international protection under the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol.  However, they are likely to be eligible under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. Like the Refugee Convention, it calls on states party to provide “protection of and assistance to refugees, particularly in the areas of health, education, labour and safety,” programs that promote the self-sufficiency and integration of refugees, and a guarantee against involuntary returns or transfers of refugees.
However, the Cartagena Declaration goes beyond the Convention by also recognizing as refugees those individuals who “have fled their country because their lives, safety 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.” Citing the domestic situation in Venezuela, UNHCR encouraged states in March 2018 to apply the Cartagena Declaration definition in the case of Venezuelan asylum seekers. Governments in the region have so far resisted taking this step, despite the fact that many – including Colombia – have incorporated the Cartagena Declaration into their national legislation.
 International Organization for Migration, “Press Release, Number of Refugees, Migrants from Venezuela Reaches 3 Million,” November 9, 2018, https://www.iom.int/news/number-refugees-migrants-venezuela-reaches-3-million.
 Refugees International, “A Battle Not Yet Over: Displacement and Women’s Needs in Post-Peace Agreement Colombia,” December 2016, https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2016/colombia.
 International Organization for Migration, “Press Release.”
 Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. Seeks $738 Million to Help Venezuela’s Neighbours Handle Migrant Flood,” Reuters, December 4, 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-venezuela-migration-un/u-n-seeks-738-million-to-help-venezuelas-neighbours-handle-migrant-flood-idUKKBN1O30XI?utm_source=NEWS&utm_medium=email&utm_content=2nd+section+1st+story+reuters&utm_campaign=HQ_EN_therefugeebrief_external_20181205.
 Teresa Welsh, “Venezuela Crisis Is ‘On the Scale of Syria,’ UNHCR says,” Devex, September 19, 2018, https://www.devex.com/news/venezuela-crisis-is-on-the-scale-of-syria-unhcr-says-93465.
 Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Movilidad Humana, el Gobierno de Ecuador, “Noticias: Declaración de Quito sobre Movilidad Humana de ciudadanos venezolanos en la Región,” September 4, 2018, https://www.cancilleria.gob.ec/declaracion-de-quito-sobre-movilidad-humana-de-ciudadanos-venezolanos-en-la-region/.
 Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Movilidad Humana, el Gobierno de Ecuador, “The II International Meeting of Quito concludes with the signing of the Action Plan on Human Mobility of Venezuelan citizens in the region,” November 23, 2018, https://www.cancilleria.gob.ec/en/the-ii-international-meeting-of-quito-concludes-with-the-signing-of-the-action-plan-on-human-mobility-of-venezuelan-citizens-in-the-region/.
 Human Rights Watch, “The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” September 3, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/03/venezuelan-exodus/need-regional-response-unprecedented-migration-crisis.
 Superintendencia Nacional de Migraciones, Ministerio del Interior, Perú, “Permiso Temporal de Permanencia para ciudadanos venezolanos,” https://www.migraciones.gob.pe/index.php/ptp-venezolanos-3/.
 The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” https://www.unhcr.org/protection/basic/3b66c2aa10/convention-protocol-relating-status-refugees.html.
 “Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama,” adopted November 22, 1984, https://www.oas.org/dil/1984_cartagena_declaration_on_refugees.pdf.