Photo: AP, retrieved

It’s hard to find exact statistics about how many Venezuelans have left in recent years. Official figures suggest there’s at least 1 million Venezuelan migrants, with more than 600,000 entering Colombia since 2014. Yet the real number could be much higher: there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum worldwide since 2014, and a study carried by Datos Group suggests that 4 in 10 Venezuelans are planning to leave within the next 12 months.

And that’s bound to keep growing.

The scale of the immigration crisis in Colombia has been compared to that of refugees from Syria and Myanmar, with Ian Bremmer, president of political risk consulting firm the Eurasia Group, calling it the world’s “least-talked-about” migration crisis. So why hasn’t more been done to offer protection and assistance to these thousands of Venezuelan migrants?

Colombian President Santos is certainly aware of the problem, being receptive to aid from the international community. Until recently, Colombia provided temporary stay permits to Venezuelans; but last February, Colombian authorities introduced new measures in an attempt to curb migration across the border. These included drastically reducing the number of work permits offered to new Venezuelan arrivals.

The problem isn’t then a reluctance to help, but an inability to cope with the number of migrants.

Refusing legal access to Venezuelans looking to flee, however, is not the answer. While over 94,000 Venezuelans were granted legal stays in Colombia in 2017, hundreds of thousands remain undocumented. This leaves them open to exploitation, forced labour, trafficking, violence and sexual abuse, something that will worsen with stricter entry requirements.  

But a glimmer of hope has emerged over the past few weeks. The UNHCR issued a new protection guidance to address the outflow of Venezuelans, encouraging nations to provide visas and temporary residence permits, and programmes guaranteeing access to basic rights. UNHCR spokesperson, Aikaterini Kitidi, speaking at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, stressed that, in view of the current political and socio-economic situation, Venezuelan migrants should not be deported or forcibly returned.

Why hasn’t more been done to offer protection and assistance to these thousands of Venezuelan migrants?

On March 13, the same day of the UNHCR announcement, the head of the World Food Program, David Beasley, described the flow of migrants into Colombia as “a humanitarian disaster.” He called for international donors to increase funding and, a day later, the IACHR called for Organization of American States (OAS) member countries to put measures in place for the safe passage of Venezuelans.  

On March 20, just a week after this statement, the United States pledged $2.5 million in aid. Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, also met with his Brazilian counterpart, Michel Temer, and discussed the migrant crisis, with Temer saying that “the Venezuelan exodus towards Brazil and Colombia disturbs Latin America.” On April 9, Norway followed suit by pledging a million dollars in humanitarian aid to “vulnerable Venezuelans”, with half that total destined for migrants into Colombia.

None of this is to say that an increase in humanitarian assistance will slow the flow of migrants; it’s unlikely that Venezuelans will return to their country until there is a safe and stable situation to go back to, and aid provisions can only do so much, especially when the Venezuelan government has refused humanitarian assistance. Teachers from both the public and private sectors are leaving at alarming rates, while doctors flee by the thousands. Even President Maduro —who blamed the crisis on an alleged economic war — has expressed concern about the exodus.

So while increased pressure from the international community may not help resolve this crisis, it raises awareness of the situation, encouraging governments to offer greater protection and guarantees for migrants’ Human Rights.

And it certainly goes a long way giving Brazil and Colombia the resources they need to cope.

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