Q&A: How to stem the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Latin American history

‘The region as a whole will never be the same after what has been going on.’

The Simón Bolívar international bridge between Venezuela and Colombia.
The Simón Bolívar International Bridge between Venezuela and Colombia. (Bram Ebus/TNH)

By the end of 2020 the number of Venezuelans to have fled their country will have risen from 4.5 million to 6.5 million, piling further pressure on regional hosts Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where rising restrictions and xenophobia are already making life harder for refugees and migrants.

This was the prediction of Eduardo Stein, the UN’s special representative on Venezuela, as he addressed a Solidarity Conference in Brussels on Monday – a meeting called by the EU to raise global awareness about the crisis and build support for fleeing Venezuelans and the countries taking them in.

Ahead of the two-day conference, The New Humanitarian caught up with Stein to discuss the changing dynamics of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Latin America’s history, and to find out more about efforts to ramp up funding for the UN’s regional response plan – the UN envoy has said this year’s budget of $739 million could nearly double next year.

A report earlier this year by a working group of the Organization of American States (OAS) regional bloc stated that Venezuelan migrants and refugees received $300 per person in 2018, as opposed to $5,000 for every Syrian refugee.

“In its first year, the Venezuelan regional response plan is 48 percent funded, while similar plans for the Syrian and Rohingya crises were each funded at 73 percent in their first year,” the International Rescue Committee noted in a call for greater solidarity – and funding – ahead of the Brussels meeting.

The conference, which gathered representatives from the UN, the EU, Latin American nations, and aid organisations, comes as Venezuela’s political stalemate and economic freefall show no sign of ending any time soon.

President Nicolás Maduro has been reluctant to allow in international aid and has denied there is a humanitarian emergency in Venezuela, where infant mortality, malnutrition, food insecurity, and infectious diseases have all risen sharply, even as the healthcare system has been decimated.

US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó is now courting Russia and China in a bid to end the impasse, but Maduro has so far maintained a tight grip on power, despite a raft of international sanctions.

Abroad, the patience of host countries has worn thin as health and education facilities have been strained by the new arrivals. Recent months have seen a spate of visa restrictions and legal changes that have made it harder for Venezuelan immigrants to find work and begin new lives.

Speaking to TNH, Stein stressed that the response capacities of Venezuela’s neighbours have become “overwhelmed”, but said he was confident the regional response plan would continue to attract more funding into 2020 – even from new donors.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TNH: Can you explain the timing of the Brussels conference?

Eduardo Stein: There is a [perception] that this is a Latin American crisis and it is [only] the responsibility of middle-income countries in Latin America as well as the United States and Canada. There is not a full systemic awareness of the gravity of the crisis. This is a humanitarian crisis like no other in all Latin America history. The region as a whole will never be the same after what has been going on. 

Secondly, because unless there is a steady political solution in Venezuela, the outflow will continue. These are the indications we have from different sources, and evidence in the [number of] crossings, so we should be prepared to attend to those who have already left Venezuela and the incoming ones in 2020. This meeting in Brussels is quite timely for increasing awareness and focusing on specific types of collaboration, even in technology, to provide for more standardised rules and regulations for crossings and movement throughout the region.

TNH: How worried are you about funding for humanitarian programmes?

Stein: Just a few weeks ago we were at 32 percent of what we had requested at the beginning of December last year. Now, we are up to 50 percent. If you compare this to other crises in other parts of the world, it is underfunded, but the funding keeps coming and mounting.

However, the experience of this year – and the more specific needs assessments we have been putting together with the help of UN agencies, governments, and NGOs throughout the region – calls for larger numbers for next year because the flow continues unabated.

What are our expectations?

Well, the growth in realisation and understanding of the systemic consequences of this exodus, not just in relation to the increased pressures on neighbouring host countries but across the entire region, will probably lead other foreign states – not only from Latin America and EU states, but also Asian governments who have shown an interest – to reconsider their contributions for next year.

TNH: How do you see the private sector getting involved?

Stein: Different countries have used different mechanisms to allow the private sector to increase labour opportunities for Venezuelan immigrants. It happened very successfully in 2014 and 2015 when it was mostly professionals who were leaving. For example, Argentina made use of the many thousands of oil engineers in 2015, but since then people leaving Venezuela are more destitute, with less education and less training. Yet, there have been some extraordinary efforts where extra labour – not from university graduates – is needed. Perhaps the most successful mechanism has been organised by Brazil, (a relocation strategy known as the Operação Acolhida) to guarantee that in regions where there is a proven need for labour, they can immediately send Venezuelans to be integrated there.

TNH: How do you see the role of development banks evolving?

Stein: The World Bank has already made a Colombian nationwide study. They have done that in Peru and are about to finish that in Ecuador. This will allow them to be admitted to a special concessional funding mechanism that proved to be really successful in North Africa. This entails grant money – and also concessional loans – that are paid at very low interest rates. Canada, for example, has provided funding so that Colombia, the first recipient of this rollback facility, does not have to pay interest on the loan, but a lower obligation over the next few years. So [the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank] will keep us up to date over what they are doing.

TNH: How worrying is the issue of growing xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants?

Stein: Very. This is sometimes down to the irresponsible behaviour of opposition parties to governments in the region. They are using the pressure of Venezuelans entering communities as a political argument to accuse the government of not paying enough attention to their own population… [as they instead] take care of incoming Venezuelans. This is not altogether true in all of the countries. There has been indeed a very ample and generous solidarity with the incoming Venezuelans, but not at the expense of taking care of local populations. The problem is that their capacity, financially and institutionally, is being overwhelmed. The impact in the medium term can be destabilising throughout Latin America.

TNH: With regulations for Venezuelan immigration increasing, illegal crossings are on the rise. How are organisations tracking those people and how will assistance be provided to them?

Stein: Civil society – mostly church – organisations, are acting at a local level together with municipalities at crossing points. These are the best radars in detecting these irregular crossings, and the abuses Venezuelan women and children in particular are being subjected to.

TNH: What sort of measures exist to keep track of the Venezuelan migrants as they move from country to country in search of assistance?

Stein: The health ministries of the Andean countries realised that because some of the Venezuelans crossing into Brazil and Colombia were going overland to other countries, the children were being vaccinated twice or three times for the same things. What they wanted to start with was a universal vaccination card with very basic data on the children and their parents or whoever they were crossing with. They saw in this experiment the embryo of what could be a general ID card – a temporary mechanism for providing personal identification to Venezuelan migrants and refugees since their own government is not providing them with passports or ID cards.

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