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Heading to neighbouring countries or migrating north? Larger effects of the Venezuelan crisis

Providing further details on the Venezuelan crisis and how it was approached by the neighbouring states with Dr. Freier
© Luisa Feline Freier

The following text has been written by Luisa Feline Freier, Universidad del Pacifico, PE.

The ongoing political, socio-economic, and humanitarian crises that continue to affect Venezuela have generated the displacement of around 5.5 million people according to the Regional Coordination Platform R4V.

This figure makes it the second crisis with the highest number of people displaced abroad worldwide, after the Syrian war, which has caused the displacement of around 6.6 million people according to the UNHCR. According to a survey conducted by the think tank Equilibrium CenDE in 2020, the main factors that Venezuelan people identify as causes of their displacement are the high cost of living (64%), the shortage of food (58%), the lack of access to medicines and healthcare (51%), the lack of job opportunities (46%), and violence (44%). At the same time, massive human rights violations are taking place in Venezuela. Not only does the government fail to safeguard basic services, and the life and freedom of its citizens; on the contrary, it exerts violence through repression and a politicized use of public services. Therefore, from a legal point of view, displaced Venezuelans meet three of the five criteria of the extended refugee definition – generalized violence, massive violations of human rights, and events that seriously disturb of public order – laid out in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which fifteen Latin American countries have already incorporated into their national legislations.

Since 2017, and due to the worsening of the country’s crises, an increasing number of Venezuelan men, women, and children have fled their country of origin in extremely vulnerable conditions, crossing the borders to neighboring countries by bus and increasingly on foot, financing their travel expenses with little savings or borrowed money, and often moving through irregular channels given the high costs of obtaining passports and visas in Venezuela. According to recent estimates by the Regional Coordination Platform R4V, the main destination countries for Venezuelan migrants and refugees are Colombia (1.7 million), Peru (1.04 million), Chile (457,324), and Ecuador (443,705), which gives this displacement scenario a predominantly regional dimension. These countries, however, have mostly been countries of emigration -and not of significant immigration- in recent decades. Therefore, Venezuelan displacement represents an enormous challenge that requires institutional adaptation and learning, as well as regional coordination and international cooperation.

In terms of Latin American countries’ policy reactions to Venezuelan displacement, we can indentify two distinguishable trends: an initial proliferation of ad hoc permits and short-term regularization programs, and, subsequently, a trend towards more restrictive migration policies in view of increasing immigration in most countries. The latter was deepened by the outbreak of COVID-19, which caused travel restrictions and severely impacted the region’s economy from April 2020 onwards.
Regarding the first trend, most Latin American countries either developed ad hoc legal instruments for the regularization and integration of displaced Venezuelans or developed no policies aimed at this population at all. The most salient examples of these instruments encompass the Colombian PEP (Special Stay Permit) and the Peruvian PTP (Temporary Stay Permit). Both authorized Venezuelan citizens to live and work in their host countries for a limited period -two years in the case of the PEP and one year in the case of the PTP. Even though these permits provided Venezuelan citizens with regular migratory status, their limited validity, often inaccessible requirements, and the fact that employers and public officials did not necessarily recognize them as valid documents represented significant shortcomings, and barriers for the socio-economic integration of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Importantly, these policy responses represented temporary regularization programs, instead of long-term and integral regularization mechanisms, leading to different consequences, such as a steep increase of asylum applications in Peru. Exceptions to this trend include Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, which unilaterally invoked the MERCOSUR Residence Agreement to Venezuelan citizens – despite Venezuela’s suspension from the blog; and Ecuador, which initially offered Venezuelans an UNASUR visa in the spirit of South American citizenship. Brazil and Mexico partially applied the extended refugee definition of Cartagena to Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Regarding the second trend, the steep increase in immigration, and the related shift towards negative perceptions that spread in host societies – initially linking Venezuelans to unemployment, and later to crime and increasing COVID-19 infection rates – generated more restrictive migration policies, especially in Chile, Ecuador and Peru. Following the introduction of passport requirements, in 2018 and 2019, all three countries implemented so-called Humanitarian Visas (called the Visa of Democratic Responsibility in Chile). These entry authorizations had to be applied for in consulates and required a Venezuelan passport and apostilled criminal records, making them de facto inaccessible for most Venezuelans due to corruption and the breakdown of public services in Venezuela. With the running out of ad hoc visa programs, such as the PEP in Colombia and the PTP in Peru, regular entry and/or regular stay became increasingly difficult for displaced Venezuelans across the region. The outbreak of COVID-19 reinforced this restrictive trend, based on the exclusion of migrants from socio-economic support programs and policies provided by most governments to mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic on employment throughout 2020, as well as the militarization of borders in Ecuador and Peru since early 2021.

Overall, and despite some set-backs, integration efforts have been made by Colombia, as well as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, the efforts of some political actors across ministries have not been able to contravene the restrictiveness and short-term approach adopted by national governments. Nevertheless, regularization efforts are underway in Peru and Chile, and have been announced by President elect Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador. Amid this context, the Colombian Temporary Protection Status, which will provide migratory regularization to nearly two million Venezuelan citizens for ten years, stands out as an example of a pragmatic, inclusive, and long-term policy for the integration of displaced Venezuelans.

© Luisa Feline Freier
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