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The Forgotten Crisis

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27 February, 2023
TOPSHOT - Migrants use a rope to cross the Tachira river, the natural border between Colombia and Venezuela, as the official border remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Cucuta, Colombia, on November 19, 2020. - Hundreds of Venezuelans stranded in Colombia tried to cross the international bridge Wednesday as heavy rains had increased the river level. (Photo by Schneyder MENDOZA / AFP) (Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ligia Bolivar
By: Ligia Bolivar
Ligia Bolivar is a Venezuelan legal expert and advocate for human rights based in Bogotá, Colombia. She is the founder of the Venezuelan Program for Education – Action on Human Rights (Provea) and co-founder of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL, Washington DC) and the International Council on Human Rights Policy (London – Geneva). She now serves as General Coordinator of AlertaVenezuela.

Seven years and seven million migrants later, the Venezuelan exodus has become permanent

Seven years have passed since the beginning of the human mobility crisis in Venezuela. During that time some seven million people have fled the country. It is a tragedy that continues, but that has begun to “normalize”, that is, it attracts less and less attention.

Throughout the Americas, people walking down a road with torn shoes have become part of the landscape. The images no longer have an impact and, therefore, do not generate the same solidarity as in other times. Perhaps this normalization is to be expected amid economies hit by a pandemic and a war in Europe that seems to be dividing the world. But the pain and suffering are just as great as when the exodus of Venezuelans began in 2016.

Now that the crisis has become normalized, the response has dimmed as well.  The admirable beginning of a large-scale humanitarian response at the Quito conference in 2018 has lost momentum. The most recent agreement between governments, the Los Angeles Declaration of June 2022, focusses far more on controlling the flow than in protecting the refugees themselves.

The welcome Venezuelans first experienced in many countries has begun to cool as well. In the field of regulations, there have been important advances towards the regularization and recognition of rights, but also serious setbacks marked by xenophobia, populism, and exacerbated nationalism. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has finally recognized that Venezuelans are not displaced, but people in need of international protection. But the numbers are great and the strains on host countries serious.

The fund for humanitarian assistance of some USD three billion that the interim government had managed to safeguard, has not yet been disbursed.  The entire operation of this fund is shrouded in mystery and the lack of transparency undermines confidence.

And all the while, in the human realm, Venezuelans continue to leave their country.  Caminantes seen in ever greater numbers on roads in Colombia. Farther afield, the number of Venezuelans hiking through the jungle hills of the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama reached an unprecedented peak in 2022.  Still further along the route, at the southern border of the United States, the number of arrests and other encounters with authorities also hit record numbers.

The stark dangers of the passage through the Darién led many migrants to embrace traffickers plying a new marine route from the Colombian island of San Andrés to Bluefields in Nicaragua, to continue the transit north from there. This route has already claimed dozens of victims in three shipwrecks. More restrictive measures adopted by the United States have not prevented those who remain determined to take the route north.

All this happens because in Venezuela the situation has not changed. For a while, Maduro government propaganda claimed that “Venezuela has fixed itself.” There was never a genuine basis to the claim, apart from a raging black market, and it has faded from common usage. Any remaining fantasies the government sought to maintain were dispelled by hundreds of protests that exploded in January 2023, when teachers, public employees, nurses, and retirees began to take to the streets rejecting miserable wages. Not only did the protests fall on deaf ears, they were met with persecution and threats against their leaders.

Civic space now stands threatened by a bill that, if approved, would put an end to independent civil society as we know it today.  Just as we saw in Nicaragua, such repression will likely trigger even higher levels of emigration.

Migrants are struggling in the host countries, but they know that they would be worse off in Venezuela. That is why the return figures are minimal. Their mindset has shifted from an aching to return, to a determination to try their luck anywhere but home. That means new challenges, without abandoning the existing ones.

With no end in sight to the migration crisis, countries of the hemisphere are confronted with a long-term situation they cannot address without cooperation. We cannot continue to rely on emergency measures alone. The status of Venezuelans across the region must be regularized, with new efforts at integration that , considers the needs of the host communities as well as those of the migrants.  We are all under strain, migrants and recipient countries alike.

In this sense, the resources for people on the move must be seen as an investment for development in the receiving communities.  These funds are not charity, they are means to respond effectively to the historic demographic transformation now underway.  We must move beyond emergency measures, with the amnesia they trigger after years go by.

Remembering the millions of Venezuelans at the heart of this crisis prompt joint efforts to help them achieve a quality of life that, in turn, will transform recipient countries into genuine hosts.

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