The vast majority of the 6 million Venezuelans who have escaped poverty, insecurity, and economic collapse in their homeland since 2015 have tried to start new lives in South America. But two years after COVID-19 led governments to close borders and enforce quarantines, many are discovering that the region is becoming a less welcoming place.
Due to greater barriers to entry in countries like Chile and Peru, difficulty in finding work in Colombia, and rising xenophobia just about everywhere, some have had enough and are heading north to Mexico and the United States. But overland journeys through Central America are perilous, and an uncertain future awaits.
“The number of people leaving Venezuela in the first six months of 2022 has been stable, with an increase in the number of people going north,” Ilaria Rápido from R4V, an online platform coordinated by the UN’s refugee and migration agencies, told The New Humanitarian.
“Some people are leaving Venezuela for the first time, but others have been living elsewhere for several years in other countries, especially in South America, without possibilities of integration and where the impact of the pandemic left them with no choice but to move to other countries.”
The lack of opportunities, growing xenophobia, and other hardships they’re encountering are leading an increasing number of migrants to reconsider their plans. Perhaps also buoyed by more optimistic growth forecasts, some have chosen to return to their homeland.
As Ana* awaited a flight at Lima’s international airport to Bogotá before continuing onwards to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, the former school teacher told The New Humanitarian she had had enough of trying her luck in foreign lands.
“I have so many mixed feelings,” she said. Having earned a living in Peru for five years, most recently as a door-to-door cosmetics salesperson, she was able to send money back to her mother back in Venezuela, but regularly faced xenophobia.
“Some of my wealthy clients told me that I was the only Venezuelan they would want to deal with. Most of them never worked. They just repeat what they are told about us. There is a lot of ignorance here,” she said.
While recognising that challenges lay ahead in Venezuela, Ana looked forward to returning to a “very hospitable” country. She said Venezuelans who decided to return home during the pandemic did so “because they had been [in Peru] for many years” and, like her, could no longer tolerate the prejudice.
Only 0.1 percent of Venezuelans who leave the country have chosen to return, but a “renewed rhetoric” of improving conditions within Venezuela has recently driven some to make the journey back home, according to Chaves-González of the Migration Policy Institute.
However, Feliciano Reyna, whose NGO Acción Solidaria participated in a wide-ranging survey recently on the humanitarian situation in Venezuela, described conditions of worsening poverty.
“People are resorting to negative coping mechanisms,” Reyna told The New Humanitarian. “They have sold everything they have and are eating less, and begging, and in some cases exchanging sex for food.”
Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling group, has reported that the rate of exit from Venezuela is now 60 percent lower than in 2020. However, since the pandemic erupted in March 2020, roughly one million more Venezuelans have joined the five million who had already fled since 2015, further amplifying the largest displacement crisis anywhere in the world in peacetime.
* Ana asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons.
Marianne Menjivar, director of the Venezuelan response at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told The New Humanitarian that COVID-19 has been a “game-changer” in many host countries where Venezuelans seek a fresh start.
“Public health services are not even available for nationals, let alone migrants and refugees,” Menjivar explained. “If you need a family planning device inserted, you can’t even get an appointment. Everything has become so overwhelmed and overstretched.”
In many countries, this combination of growing economic hardship and shrinking government resources has also fed into populist and xenophobic discourse, sometimes inciting violence.
Women, who make up at least half the Venezuelan migrant population in main host countries Colombia and Peru, are vulnerable to gender-based violence along migration routes and where they settle – a situation exposed in a new report published this week by Amnesty International.
Amnesty said both countries are failing to provide adequate protection for the women, who often face physical and sexual violence at home, but also exploitation at work, including being co-opted into sexual exploitation. In spite of high levels of under-reporting, GBV cases rose 71 percent between 2018 and 2021 in Colombia, and 31 percent in Peru for the same period.
Diego Chaves-González, senior manager of the Migration Policy Institute’s Latin America and Caribbean Initiative, called urgently for better policy coordination among authorities at local, national, and regional levels to improve the deteriorating situation for Venezuelan migrants.
“This is a crucial moment for Latin America where levels of xenophobia are spiking and where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to create policies for integration of migrants,” he told The New Humanitarian. “This can develop into a social time bomb where I don’t know what the effects will be.”
Click on the boxes in the interactive map below to find out more about the situation facing Venezuelan migrants in each host or transit country, and scroll down to read more.
Colombia (1.84 million Venezuelans) – Competing for jobs, attention
At well above 1.8 million, direct neighbour Colombia hosts more Venezuelans than any other country. In 2021, it also emerged as a critical transit country for migrants and asylum seekers, not only regionally from Cuba and Haiti, but also from Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.
Along with thousands of Venezuelans, most were making their way through the dangerous Darién Gap into Central America in the hope of reaching the United States overland.
Read more → A Cuban asylum seeker’s dangerous odyssey
Resurgent violence involving drug gangs and armed groups despite a landmark peace agreement in 2016, and rising poverty due to the pandemic, mean the needs of Venezuelan migrants must compete for attention with Colombia’s own internal crises. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, estimates that 7.7 million people in Colombia – not including the Venezuelans – are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The economic impacts of COVID-19 left migrants, who earned on average 30 percent less than Colombians before the pandemic, even more vulnerable to job losses. Unable to pay rent and often lacking a legal migration status, many made the reverse journey home after the health crisis struck.
This changed, however, in April 2021, when Colombia granted Venezuelan applicants a 10-year residency status – a Temporary Protection Permit, or PPT – allowing them to work legally and access social services, including healthcare and education. The programme is open to anyone who entered the country legally after January 2021. Applications can be submitted until November 2023.
Clara Gamizdeluna, deputy programmes director in Colombia for the International Rescue Committee, hailed the initiative, which has already delivered more than one million permits to migrants, as a “great effort… to integrate Venezuelans”.
However, she acknowledged that many public and private institutions have yet to recognise the new document, while health services remain limited, meaning a lot of Venezuelans with PPTs aren’t being allowed to work and still lack access to education and healthcare.
There are also estimated to be at least 162,000 caminantes – migrants travelling by foot across the country in search of opportunities – in Colombia. They are not covered by the PPT programme and are the most at risk to extortion, exploitation, and violence.
Incoming President-elect Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist leader, has said he will re-open the border with Venezuela when he assumes office on 7 August. It’s unclear what broader effect that might have on migration, but it’s likely to leave fewer Venezuelans falling prey to criminal gangs and smugglers on dangerous illegal routes.
Many Venezuelans end up in informal settlements in dangerous, gang-ridden border areas, where they struggle to integrate properly and find work. Those making for the cities face growing competition for jobs against a backdrop of rising inequality, inflation and violence, made worse by the war in the Ukraine, which has driven up food and fuel costs.
Claudia López, the influential mayor of Bogotá, stoked rising xenophobia recently when she proposed the creation of a dedicated “migrant criminal” police force.
Peru (1.3 million Venezuelans) – Rising numbers, rising xenophobia
Peru, the second most popular destination country for Venezuelans, at 1.3 million, has seen the sharpest increase in arrivals in South America, up some 50 percent since 2020.
It had been one of the region’s fastest-growing economies but suffered the highest death rate globally from COVID-19, and has experienced a sharp rise in poverty after imposing severe lockdowns.
After often travelling more than 3,000 kilometres from Venezuela, most migrants arrive in the northern border region of Tumbes, often malnourished and with urgent medical needs, according to aid groups at the border. Due to recent restrictions on entry into Peru, most now use clandestine border crossings, where they are at the mercy of people smugglers and drug traffickers.
Ahead of Colombia in offering Venezuelan migrants a two-year version of temporary status in 2017 and 2018, Peru used to be more welcoming but has since taken a harsher line on migrants amid growing political and social pressure, and mounting xenophobia.
Since Peru’s temporary stay programme (the PTP, or Permiso Temporal de Permanencia) wrapped up in 2020, migrants have had two options: apply for a one-year Temporary Permanence Permit (CPP) card, which, like the PTP, acts as a kind of amnesty; or apply for asylum through a humanitarian residency permit, of which half a million have been allotted.
The CCP puts the many Venezuelans who may have entered Peru since late 2020, in legal limbo. It also requires applicants to present official documentation when applying. As a result of the new restrictions, illegal crossings are expected to increase, while economic inclusion, access to services and protection is being denied.
During his election campaign in 2021, President Pedro Castillo, a former rural school teacher who appealed to poor and Indigenous communities, threatened to expel migrants, feeding into the wider xenophobic discourse propagated by several other presidential contenders.
In December, he planned a repatriation of 41 Venezuelans by plane, before Caracas refused to authorise the landing of the flight and the migrants were set free again in Lima.
An International Rescue Committee (IRC) survey published in March estimated that 46 percent of Venezuelans were living under the poverty line of $88 in weekly family earnings – at an average level of $79 – with many having to rely on assistance from family, friends, humanitarian groups or soup kitchens for food assistance.
Xenophobic statements and actions by elected officials, including the sudden expulsion of foreign sex workers ordered by the mayor of the northern town of Piura, has contributed to public antipathy towards Venezuelan migrants.
“There has been backstepping through political messaging by the government itself on the issue of deteriorating public security in the country, which they ironically attribute to the migrants, who they claim never provided anything,” said Matilde Cobeñas, Peru’s deputy ombudsman for children.
“We cannot say that officials are all aligned in the same discourse, in understanding protection towards migrants, particularly of the most vulnerable, such as children,” Cobeñas told The New Humanitarian. “Officials need to understand that migration is a right.”
In a recent study looking at the challenges school-aged Venezuelan children face in accessing education in Peru, Save the Children reported that nearly 10 percent of those not attending school had experienced exclusion or discrimination by school directors and parents of other students when they applied for a spot.
“It’s a warning,” said Nelly Claux, programme quality director of Save the Children in Peru. “These feelings of hatred and rejection towards the migrants permeate throughout society.”
A raft of administrative barriers – such as a lack of official ID documents that are difficult for migrants to obtain, age limitations for children who may have fallen back in learning, or an inability to register on the one annual date allowed – have made school attendance harder.
Chile (448,000 Venezuelans) – Violence in the northern border region
In spite of growing violence against migrants in Chile’s northern border region since late 2021, the draw of one of Latin America’s highest-income countries for Venezuelans endures. Many continue to arrive with the goal of joining family members and finding jobs and security, after braving high-altitude crossings from Bolivia and Peru that include surmounting huge trenches dug by the Chilean authorities to try to keep them out.
Once across the border, migrants find themselves in another inhospitable area, both climatically and due to the unfriendly welcome they often receive from locals. Getting to the closest city, Iquique, some 235 kilometres away, is challenging – drivers can be fined for transporting irregular migrants, so many end up walking at least part of the journey.
Since February, when a new migration law allowed for the expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers who enter the country illegally, concern has grown over pushbacks. Of particular concern are expulsion back to Bolivia’s remote southern regions, where conditions are harsh, and where basic services are lacking for the marginalised Indigenous population, let alone for migrants.
The new legislation only affords legal status to migrants who entered the country on a permit granted before March 2020, when borders were shut due to the pandemic. Applications for residence visas must now be made and completed from abroad, a challenge for most migrants who lack proper documentation and job qualifications. Summary deportations of anyone known to have entered Chile illegally have been strengthened by the law.
Ahead of the November 2021 elections, anti-migrant protests and strikes by truck drivers led the government to deploy troops to the northern region as part of its wider policy to “put the house back in order”.
Before his inauguration in March, President Gabriel Boric had promised to prioritise the migration situation in response to predecessor Sebastián Piñera’s militarisation of the crisis. But public pressure, amplified by the COVID-fuelled economic downturn, led him to extend earlier manu militari measures.
Jenny Barchfield, UNHCR’s spokesperson for South America, told The New Humanitarian that funding shortfalls are threatening the agency’s ability to provide protection and support migrants in the country.
Brazil (345,000 Venezuelans) – Indigenous migration
Initially used more as a transit route to other destinations, Brazil has witnessed a growing number of Venezuelans – including some from Indigenous communities in the country’s border regions, arriving with the intention of staying.
Roughly 7,000 Indigenous Warao people have migrated to Brazil, often malnourished and destitute. Language is another hurdle, as they have limited knowledge of Spanish, let alone Portuguese. Last year, neighbouring Guyana also International Organization for Migration (IOM) and NGOs, the initiative was set up to relieve pressure on public services in the state of Roraima, where they arrive from Venezuela. But as a Reuters investigation into the programme recently revealed, abuses and exploitation of informal workers, including by criminal groups, is widespread.
On the more positive side, the city of Sāo Paulo has created a system providing guidance and support for migrants, including facilitating access to bank accounts allowing them to send earnings home.
Last year, the government simplified the process for obtaining two-year temporary residence permits. Roughly 75 percent of applications by Venezuelans have been for residency since the system was launched in 2018, with the remaining number having applied for asylum.
Venezuela’s migrant flows
Ecuador (513,000 Venezuelans) – Progress on regularisation
Ecuador is another popular transit country for Venezuelan migrants on their way to other destination countries.
Following a pandemic closure, its official southern border crossings opened in February for only Ecuadoreans and Peruvians, leaving most Venezuelans to cross informally in either direction, with some 60 percent of Venezuelans heading southward to Peru and Chile and the remainder entering Ecuador.
In June, Ecuador’s government announced an “amnesty” for migrants whose status remains irregular, granting them renewable two-year residency visas and thus removing any remaining barriers to basic public services and entrepreneurship. While this was the second time that the government has announced a regularisation programme, some 62 percent of Venezuelans lacked legal status in the country in 2021.
The IRC reported earlier this year that 70 percent of Venezuelans surveyed said food was a major concern, while a similar proportion worried about affording rent. With only one in four in possession of a passport and many others unable to afford $250 for a work permit, most migrants work illegally, running the risk of being fined and exploited by employers.
The Caribbean (177,800 Venezuelans) – The closest escape for some
For many Venezuelans living in northern states along the Caribbean coast, far from the well-trodden border crossing into Colombia near Cúcuta, fleeing via sea to nearby islands appears an easier alternative, avoiding the high costs of sparse transport amid ongoing fuel shortages. In April 2022, regional officials noted that irregular movements along these routes were at a record high.
Trinidad and Tobago, the closest islands, located just 24 kilometres from Venezuela’s poor northern state of Sucre – where the tourism and oil sectors have all but collapsed – has drawn over 28,000 Venezuelans, often risking their lives in the hands of smugglers and people traffickers. Those who survive shipwrecks and often-violent confrontations with border patrols are afforded little protection on arrival, and women risk being trafficked or taken into sexual slavery, sometimes with the complicity of local officials.
Similarly dangerous sea routes are taken to the neighbouring Dutch islands of Aruba and Curaçao – ranking first and third in terms of Venezuelans per domestic population anywhere in the world, with 17,000 migrants in each territory. Unlike Aruba, Curaçao doesn’t recognise the 1951 Refugee Convention, and migrants have long risked detention and abuse there.
The Dominican Republic was used until recently as a bridge for deportation flights for Venezuelans from the United States initiated by president Donald Trump. Last year, it introduced a programme to regularise the status of more than 115,000 Venezuelans living in the country – a sharp contrast to the government’s heavy-handed treatment of Haitians who have crossed their eastern border amid their country’s deepening humanitarian crisis.
Mexico, Central America, and the United States (700,000+ Venezuelans) – The dangerous route north
Worsening economic opportunities and rising xenophobia in South America have seen many Venezuelan migrants who had already settled in the region taking greater risks to resume their search for better lives by heading north through Central America, in the hope that the US authorities may be less likely to deport them than other nationalities.
Venezuelans became the leading nationality taking the treacherous route through the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama during the first five months of 2022. The trend strengthened as Mexico and many Central American countries imposed visa requirements for Venezuelans, cutting off air routes.
Instead of flying to Mexico, many Venezuelans, lacking passports or other official documentation, are taking the riskier land route from South America, often paying smugglers to cross borders illegally. Official documents are particularly difficult and costly to obtain in Venezuela and abroad, due to limited consular representation.
Until January, when Mexico’s visa mandate was announced, Venezuelans had been apprehended at record levels by US border officials, falling from a high a month earlier, of 24,000 to barely 3,000.
Meanwhile, the number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in Mexico tripled between January and May, when 1,268 Venezuelans applied. “It meant that people didn’t stop moving because of the visa requirement, they instead started moving by foot,” Rápido explained.
In February, Costa Rica became the latest country in Central America to impose a visa requirement on Venezuelans, further complicating their transit through the region.
In March 2021, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a programme to grant temporary protection status to Venezuelans. Trump had refused to do so, instead deporting migrants back on secret flights. In spite of Biden’s criticism of these deportations, the flights appear to have continued until at least last December. This week, the US government said it would extend the TPS allowance for an additional 18 months. Since 2014, more than 350,000 Venezuelans have migrated to the United States.
The New Humanitarian used transportation provided by Save the Children for the Peru part of this story.
Edited by Andrew Gully.