Photo: Human Rights Watch retrieved

In case there was any doubt that the regime’s official policy on migration is denial and humiliation, a press conference last Monday confirmed it: Delcy and Jorge Rodríguez called the ongoing migrant crisis “fake news” and a “media attack” against Venezuela, carried out via social media. It was “Alternativefactland” at its best.

Luckily, and contradicting the regime’s version of reality, that same day Human Rights Watch published a remarkable report describing the depth and complexities of the Venezuelan migrant crisis, as well as its undeniable impact throughout the region.

While the Rodríguez siblings affirm that Venezuela is the second South American country receiving most migrants in the region, HRW confirms that, according to UNHCR figures, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country between 2014 and 2017. Almost half of them don’t have the legal permits to stay or work at their destinations.

The report argues that most of those on the move are not just migrants in search of opportunities, they’re citizens whose situation makes them unable or unwilling to return; complexities are associated to the country’s economic, human rights, political, social and humanitarian crises, critical issues that make them eligible for the refugee status according to international standards (especially the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which defines refugees as those escaping “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”). The UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) is focusing on that, saying that “ the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelan nationals fall within the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration, with a resulting rebuttable presumption of international protection needs.” On this, HRW asks states to “carefully consider (…) the extent to which their laws give rise to valid claims of protection by Venezuelans who have fled the country for humanitarian reasons rooted in the ongoing crisis.”

“More than 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country between 2014 and 2017. Almost half of them don’t have the legal permits to stay or work at their destinations.”

But until these standards are reviewed and applied, Venezuelans will keep facing hurdles in the different countries they settle in. First, they have to cross the border. If you have relatives or friends in Venezuela, you know that getting a passport can be next to impossible (the report reckons a two-year waiting period). Visa restrictions also stand in the way. Chile, for example, requires Venezuelans to apply for a visa from within Venezuela, with a valid passport, “effectively closing the door to many.” Several other countries, like the United States, Panama and Honduras have similar visa requirements.

Once out of Venezuela, getting legal permits to live and work in the new country is the next big challenge. Those who don’t succeed are vulnerable to abuse, sexual and labor exploitation and human trafficking. Reviewing responses to the migrant crisis, the Caribbean subregion emerges in the report as the least sympathetic with the migrants’ plight. No Caribbean country has officially adopted a special permit for Venezuelans to legally stay and most of the countries lack laws to regulate the asylum-seeking process. The situation in the countries most affected by the influx (Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and Curaçao) is worrisome: discrimination, verbal and physical harassment, detention in inhumane conditions (sometimes indefinitely) and deportation even of those with UNHCR-issued asylum seeker and refugee certificates. HRW says it received credible reports of arrests of people who “look Venezuelan.”

Isabel González was detained during a raid in Trinidad and Tobago while she was delivering a bag of food for her 4-year-old son that fellow Venezuelans were taking back home. She had no permit to stay, but did have a UNHCR-issued asylum certificate. An immigration judge sentenced her to a year in detention, or pay the equivalent to US$ 2,700. She remains prisoner at a maximum-security jail.

“Reviewing responses to the migrant crisis, the Caribbean subregion emerges in the report as the least sympathetic with the migrants’ plight.”

Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina are the top five countries where Venezuelans have migrated to. Outside South America, the two countries most affected by the Venezuelan exodus are the United States and Spain. In April 2018, Venezuela appeared for the first time on the list of the top five countries of asylum applicants in the European Union, with the largest number arriving to Spain (more than 40,000 between 2016 and 2017 alone). While roughly half of asylum requests were granted in the U.S. between 2011 and 2016, in Spain only 1% of asylum seekers have obtained protection.

The HRW’s recommendations are rooted in today’s indisputable fact that the crisis has gained regional proportions. To ensure protection for Venezuelan migrants, the report says, a “collective and concerted” response is required, including a region-wide temporary protection regime grating Venezuelans legal status for fixed periods of time, as well as a regional mechanism to cover the financial burden on hosting nations. Some of these recommendations were echoed in the Quito Declaration adopted on Tuesday by several countries in the region, after a two-day meeting on the crisis.

The report makes a welcomed plea to address the exodus’ roots, so that Venezuelans don’t have to flee their country. HRW suggests sanctions targeting the regime’s officials, but international pressure is just one part of the equation. Internally, political options and actors have faded behind a cloud of uncertainty and fear, only to be replaced by a fractured opposition and its mad bickering and witch hunt, that often plays out on social media.

Venezuelans in and out of the country are in political orphanhood: no government looks out for us, ensuring our basic rights; no political leaders accompany and guide us in these dark moments; and no statesmen (and women) are capable of drawing a realistic plan and mobilize the necessary support to bring about the political change the nation yearns.

Without realistic perspectives of a shift in the current situation, we can expect many more Venezuelans to flee.

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