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The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

Venezuela has experienced one the worlds’ largest migration crises. By the end of 2021, it is estimated that more than 6 million Venezuelans will be living abroad.

The following text has been written by Berti Olinto, CERC in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University, CA.

Venezuela has experienced one the worlds’ largest migration crises. By the end of 2021, it is estimated that more than 6 million Venezuelans will be living abroad. For many, the crisis is linked to the socialist revolution or the so-called Socialismo del Siglo XXI, promoted by late president Hugo Chavez, who took office in 1999 and remained president until his death in 2013. His socialist agenda focused heavily on statization, promising to use Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. After Chavez’s death, Nicolas Maduro was proclaimed President of Venezuela despite opposition’s demands for a recount of votes due to the closest gap between candidates in the country’s recent history.

Maduro, whom Chavez had hand-picked as his successor, inherited a country with a large public expenditure that had plunged the country into one of the highest inflation rates in the region. By the time Maduro assumed power in 2013, his government was no longer able to sustain the country’s expenditures with the revenues from its oil exports.


Since 2006, the United States has imposed sanctions in response to activities of the Venezuelan government and individuals, for alleged human rights abuses, corruption, and antidemocratic actions. Nonetheless, Maduro has remained firmly in power and his party now controls a de facto National Assembly.

Autocratic Rule

In March 2017, Venezuelan’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that stripped three elected legislators in the opposition party of their power and granted itself the power to write laws. The move prompted massive protests that continued for months, intensifying the political and economic turmoil that the country had experienced since the collapse of oil prices in late 2014.

Asylum Seeker Surge

The first wave of Venezuelan migration started in the early 2000s. This wave comprised Venezuelans with favourable economic conditions and high education levels. Most of these early migrants fled to the United States and Spain during the first 10 years of Chavez’s government. By the end of 2015, the pace of people fleeing had dramatically increased, with around one million leaving between August and December of that year. In 2016, over 14,700 Venezuelans requested asylum in the United States, a 150% increase over the previous year. For the first time, Venezuelans topped the list of asylum-seekers, above Mexicans, El Salvadorans or Guatemalans.

In 2018, the massive migration of Venezuelans to other countries in Latin America propelled the implementation of immigration policies to deal with the large influx of migrants and asylum seekers. International organizations referred to a “refugee crisis,” and multilateral strategies such as the Lima Group, a diplomatic initiative that brings together countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, led regional efforts supporting a peaceful solution to the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

A Regional Crisis

Most Venezuelans who have fled during the last four years are residing in neighbouring countries, with around 80% of migrants remaining in South and Central America, the majority of them have fled to Colombia (1.7 million). Besides geographical proximity, language, cultural commonalities and the implementation of government-led inclusion initiatives are among the reasons why Venezuelans have stayed in the region. In spite of government and international cooperation initiatives aimed at integrating migrants and refugees, the massive influx of Venezuelans has sparked xenophobia, racism, violence and discrimination. Venezuelan migrants have been blamed for a rise in petty crime and for competition for jobs and hospital beds.

Challenges faced by South American governments in terms of providing adequate health services, housing and job opportunities have been constantly reported by international organizations. Estimates up to 2019 suggested that more than 900,000 Venezuelans in Colombia needed health assistance, and around 60% of the International Rescue Committee’s respondents faced barriers to accessing healthcare, with the greatest unmet need being access to medicines. In 2019, many Venezuelans in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru were homeless. In some border cities, communities of Venezuelans were living in precarious tent encampments, vulnerable to hygiene-related diseases and crime; employment opportunities were scarce, and xenophobia was on the rise.

While the increasing number of refugees and migrants traveling in part or entirely on foot (the so-called caminantes) has been reported since 2018, their vulnerability has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought additional health risks while, at the same time, less assistance is available. As conditions in Venezuela worsen, the caminantes phenomenon is still present in some border cities. By the end of 2021, an estimated

  • 162,000 of these migrants will pass through Colombia,
  • 90,300 through Ecuador,
  • 75,600 through Peru, and
  • 2,900 through Central America and Mexico.

Regional Policies in the Spotlight

The Venezuelan migration has sparked conversation about migration policies in the region. Programmes such as Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome) in Brazil and Colombia’s decision to grant Temporary Protected Status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in 2021 have created a new scenario in which migration, solidarity and the social inclusion of Venezuelans have become commonplace in the media and political discourse. For many, the crisis has not only challenged regional institutions and governments but has also become the most pressing migratory phenomena facing states in Latin America in the contemporary era.

© Berti Olinto
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