Photo: El País

Venezuelan Migrants in Dire Need of Protection

The COVID-19 crisis is severely impacting the lives of many people all around the world. Venezuelans migrants and refugees, more vulnerable than ever, are not the exception

Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador are the primary destination and transit countries of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, yet one of the first things these governments did when the COVID-19 epidemic began was shut down their borders, despite being fully aware of the permanent migration flow. 

This is a clear lack of understanding of the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Even with restrictions imposed by visa requirements in Peru and Ecuador, people continue to cross the borders using unsafe paths that have exposed hundreds to human trafficking and other forms of violence, denying them even the possibility to access basic rights.

The COVID-19 crisis won’t change that because the reasons behind this context remain. So not only this new crisis threatens with collapsing our health systems, it also aggravates other human rights situations that were already thereaggressions against Venezuelan migrants and refugees is one of them.

In Colombia, the impact of the border shutdown was immediate; that first weekend after the decision, the Colombian National Police Riot Squad (ESMAD, a harshly criticized security force) was sent for “control.” Thousands of people were still trying to cross. Just for context, almost five million people have been granted mobility passes to circulate within border cities and more than a million people in Colombia don’t have regular status. In Colombia, there are more than five thousand people requesting asylum with cases still pending. They only have safe-conduct, with different obstacles to access social services. 

Colombia did try to keep its doors open at first, but the solidarity was cut short for migrants and refugees as local governments started complaining: a few days ago the Mayor of Cali urged the national government to coordinate the repatriation of Venezuelans coming into the city from different regions and countries like Ecuador. 

This is a clear lack of understanding of the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Even with restrictions imposed by visa requirements in Peru and Ecuador, people continue to cross the borders using unsafe paths.

While general guidelines for handling COVID-19 cases in migrants were already issued by the Ministry of Health of Colombia, there are a few numbers that we should keep in mind: as of December 2019, there were 1,771,237 Venezuelans living in Colombia; more than a million of them (57.5%) didn’t have regular migratory status. According to several decisions from the Constitutional Court, urgent medical care for migrants must be granted in Colombia, regardless of their status, however, before COVID-19, there were still many obstacles for them to access medical care. The guidelines still ignore these obstacles. 

A provision also established that authorities must coordinate spaces for sheltering migrants, complying with the quarantine, but the actual execution of this is hazy, considering that in Bogotá, for example, a large number of Venezuelans are being forced to leave their lodgings because they can’t pay rent. The Bogotá mayor, Claudia López, said that covering this is not a local government responsibility, using xenophobic statements on how the municipality has been solidary enough already

Again, a lack of understanding of the obligations of the state to protect the rights of migrants and refugees.

In Peru, tanks were placed at the northern border with Ecuador on April 3rd to prevent informal entries, and airplanes patrol informal paths known by Peruvian authorities. Resolution N° 304-2020, which provides exceptions to the quarantine restrictions and curfew measures, only says that, when it comes to the closing of borders, illegal entries ought to be detected by the Army and National Police, and immediate expulsion must be coordinated with migration authorities. 

The COVID-19 emergency erased the notion of almost five million people desperately leaving their homes, and left them invisible and barred from international protection, just when they need it the most. 

The Peruvian government also announced a bonus of 380 soles for the Peruvian population most affected by the quarantine. Municipalities have been distributing food and assistance for vulnerable families. These aid policies, up until now, exclude migrants. This is a country where almost 500 thousand Venezuelans have requested refugee status and food insecurity remains a major challenge for Venezuelans who depend on their daily income. According to a 2019 report from the World Bank, most of these migrants in Peru lack effective access to the public health system. NGOs have been denouncing cases of refusal to apply the COVID-10 test in the Ministry of Health to applicants who don’t have regular migratory status. 

This is why international human rights organizations, civil society, and many advocates for migrant and refugees insist on the importance of human rights based responses to one of the largest migration waves the region has ever seen. The consequences are crystal clear now: migrants and refugees are not part of comprehensive policies that seek to integrate them and fulfill their rights as the rest of the population.   

Numbers are still unclear, but we do know that thousands of Venezuelans are making the trip back to their country. These people are so unprotected abroad, that they decide to return to Venezuela, which is in a potentially worse situation than the one they left behind in the first place.

Selene Soto

Venezuelan. lawyer specialized in human rights and gender issues. She currently holds the position of senior lawyer in the International Organization Women's Link Worldwide.