The Sordid Tale of Returned Venezuelan Migrants

According to the de facto regime, some 22,654 Venezuelans who had migrated decided to return at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They must now endure the vengeance of resentful authorities

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Until July 2020, some 5,202,270 million Venezuelans had left the country. According to data from the de facto government, 22,654 of those have returned. Their hope in returning? Well, in the context of the worst sanitary, social and economic crisis our generation has experienced, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, they hope to reconnect with the place they know, the family they love and to get support from their loved ones and their network of doctors albeit in a decadent health system, should they catch the virus.

See, crises such as the one we’re currently experiencing provoke fears and anxiety in all of us. It’s only human that if you’re away, you seek your familiar places, with familiar faces, to prepare you for potential contagion. Such is the case of the 22,000 Venezuelans who had left the country seeking a better life but decided to return.

You’d think that they’d be welcomed with open arms, that their own country would allow them to enjoy the rights and privileges given by their citizenship. 

But that’s not the case for returned Venezuelan migrants.

Instead, they’re facing the vengeful acts of a resentful de facto government who controls the military and, therefore, the entry points into Venezuela. Upon return, and on the justification of containing the spread of COVID-19, these Venezuelans are stopped by the military at the border and transferred to facilities where they’re kept in almost subhuman conditions: no potable water, no access to adequate food, no access to medical care, no place to sleep. 

You’d think that they’d be welcomed with open arms, that their own country would allow them to enjoy the rights and privileges given by their citizenship. 

If they complain, they can be singled out and hit by soldiers. 

And it’s not just this. Officials of the de facto administration have publicly stigmatized these Venezuelans by calling them “bioterrorist” weapons. Although there’s no empirical evidence connecting the spread of the virus to the arrival of these returned migrants, Maduro’s regime has even gone as far as to threaten them with prison for allegedly being part of a “biological war.” 

The purpose is to punish them for leaving, an expression of dissent with everything chavismo represents. They want to make sure that everyone in Venezuelan thinks twice before migrating or returning. 

And this is on top of the vexations endured by Venezuelans who were traveling when the pandemic hit, now stranded in other countries with no means of returning. A review of responses from other countries handling their expats stranded in other countries reveals a completely different approach. Just in Colombia, our neighboring country, more than 160 humanitarian flights have been coordinated by the government to bring their nationals home since March 2020, and more than the total number of returned Venezuelan migrants (23,000 Colombians) have been repatriated.    

In response to this, on July 21st, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) went public, “rejecting the militarization of the borders, stigmatizing discourses, and the criminalization of returned migrants due to the pandemic,” on the basis that these measures tend to promote discrimination, and increase the state of vulnerability of these (already vulnerable) populations.

Good politicians, even for their own electoral benefit, would see this as an opportunity to improve the well-being of these citizens because, long-term, this should mean more votes. Good politicians would be thinking of an effective public policy on return migration. But the game the de facto regime is playing is one of repression, of hiding and punishing dissent.

While we wait for the transition to democracy and for a new government to take over, laypeople like us have a responsibility to help our fellow nationals. Support organizations in the field that are providing help. It’s on us, too.


** Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).