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Latin America makes it harder for Venezuelan refugees as xenophobia mounts

‘We are living in the middle of a society that discriminates on many levels.’

Venezuelan migrants carrying luggage are pictured as they get on a government bus at the Simon Bolivar International airport. Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters
A group of Venezuelan migrants, who had been stranded on the Chile-Peru border after it was militarised, board a government bus in Caracas after being repatriated to Venezuela, on 7 May 2023.

Venezuelan refugees and migrants across Latin America face rising xenophobia and growing challenges to integrate into host countries, even as President Nicolás Maduro’s latest wave of repression ahead of July elections threatens new migration outflows. 

Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador, the four main hosting countries, have all increased restrictions for Venezuelans to enter their countries and intensified deportations, while failing to establish policies giving them access to formal jobs, health, and education. 

Across the region, the economic slowdown and mounting xenophobia towards Venezuelans have been pushing many to pack up and leave

In 2023, nearly 330,000 Venezuelans – more than 1% of the country’s entire population and double the 2022 figure – crossed the treacherous jungle corridor linking Colombia to Panama known as the Darién Gap in the hope of reaching the United States.

The majority of Darién Gap crossings in 2023 were Venezuelan

In Chile and Brazil, growing numbers of Venezuelans are deciding to migrate for a second time, looking for new opportunities elsewhere, while high inflation and low wages in Argentina and Colombia are also driving migrants and refugees northwards.

Once welcoming to Venezuelans, the Peruvian government, in particular, has been hardening its stance, mirroring what is happening to varying degrees in other Latin American nations.

The Andean country hosts the highest number of Venezuelan asylum seekers globally and the second largest community of Venezuelans after Colombia – 1.5 million of the more than 7.7 Venezuelans who have fled their country's economic collapse and soaring humanitarian needs since 2015.

Years of political division and corrupt governance in Peru have landed several former presidents in prison. Spurred by growing dissatisfaction among citizens hit hard by the economic crisis, populist authorities have resorted to overplaying the security card.

Leaders have actively contributed to the stigmatising of Venezuelan migrants by framing them as responsible for rising crime rates – political rhetoric that has often been perpetuated in media reports, worsening the stigma. 

Dina Boluarte took over the presidency in December 2022 after left-leaning president Pedro Castillo was impeached and removed from office. She faced months of anti-government protests that she controlled through brutal police and military repression while further exacerbating Peru’s anti-migration stance. 

Her decision to declare a state of emergency and militarise all borders to fight illegal migration in April 2023 left hundreds of Venezuelan migrants who were trying to head northwards stranded on the Chilean border with no water, little food, and no shelter.

“We are living in the middle of a society that discriminates on many levels: from the state, Congress, within civil society, and in society at large,” Richard O’Diana, an advocacy officer at Save the Children Peru, told The New Humanitarian.

Unlike other humanitarian work they do in the country, O’Diana said the protection of migrants has received little local support even as the situation in Venezuela has failed to improve.

After years of negotiations, Maduro’s regime signed an agreement with the opposition last October, committing to hold free and fair elections. The deal brought hopes it could alleviate the country’s humanitarian crisis, especially as the United States then eased restrictions on Venezuela’s key oil and gas sector.

However, Maduro has since intensified a crackdown on political opponents and civil society, banning his main contender from running in the 28 July presidential election, arresting dozens of opposition members, and trying to strip NGOs of their status. Washington has now tied any renewal of its sanctions easing to further progress towards free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, economic mismanagement, hyperinflation, rising food insecurity, and rampant corruption have continued to fuel the outward flow of Venezuelans from their country. 

Forty-three-year-old Osmundo, who asked for his name to be changed for security reasons, arrived in Peru in 2018 from Venezuela’s northwestern state of Lara. Upon arrival, he received a temporary residency permit that he has been able to extend, but he has struggled to make enough money to support his family back home, especially given the high level of inflation. 

He now works as an Uber driver and says passengers sometimes verbally abuse him simply for being Venezuelan.

“It’s racism,” he told The New Humanitarian. “When they begin, I just remain quiet. I don’t want to engage in the polemic, as it will change my attitude and we won’t get anywhere.”

Narrowing space

Between 2000 and 2017, several South American presidents, including those of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, adopted progressive immigration laws that made it easier for migrants to cross borders, work legally, and obtain resident visas. But the trend in policy has since reversed.

In Argentina, former president Mauricio Macri passed a 2017 decree to limit immigrants’ entry and facilitate deportation – drawing criticism from the UN. In Chile, former president Sebastián Piñera also toughened immigration policies, while current president Gabriel Boric has increasingly hardened his discourse and expedited expulsions. In Colombia, a political shift to the left since the inauguration of President Gustavo Petro and improved relations with Maduro have prompted a “policy of silence” regarding the Venezuelan refugee and migrant situation.

In Peru, former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski introduced open-door policies towards Venezuelan migrants in 2017 through a temporary residency programme known as the PTP. This granted them an initial two-year stay and access to health, education, and other social services. 

However, subsequent governments introduced more stringent requirements for PTP applications and later made Venezuelans apply for “humanitarian visas” before entering the country. Both required migrants to present valid passports, which are too costly for many to get. This sparked a massive wave of applications for asylum and refugee status – the only remaining option to legally enter the country – that overwhelmed the Peruvian authorities.

“The shift shows that the government is not prioritising individuals and human protection, and is more focused on political agendas.”

Christian Carrillo, officer-in-charge at the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Peru, said the backlog of asylum applications amounted to over 500,000 requests this year, and that by October 2023 only around 5,000 Venezuelans had been granted refugee status. 

“What people want is an identification document that is recognised by authorities,” he told The New Humanitarian, adding that they need it to access services such as health, education, work, and banking.

Last November, Boluarte – herself now under investigation for corruption – introduced a new series of amendments to the Migration Law that accelerated expulsions of undocumented persons and prohibited the renting of property or sale of transport tickets to them, among other measures. 

“The shift shows that the government is not prioritising individuals and human protection, and is more focused on political agendas,” said Nicolás Forero Villarreal, a human rights lawyer and researcher on Venezuelan migration. “It’s more about politics, and for administrations to appear [more decisive on migration] than previous governments.”

Blame game

The COVID-19 pandemic was the starting point of policy changes in several countries as authorities began refocusing their efforts on security, and on keeping people out.

Since then, Venezuelans have been left to largely fend for themselves, with children paying a heavy price. For instance, when in-person classes resumed in Peru after the pandemic in 2022, 27% of Venezuelan children in two of the country's most populated regions weren’t attending school, in part because they couldn't validate their studies or had no immigration documentation, according to Save the Children.

But adults also face discrimination. Undocumented migrant workers tend to hold positions beneath their education level and are paid less than locals.

According to a July 2023* World Bank-UNHCR report, while 32% of Venezuelans in Peru have post-secondary education, only 2% hold positions in the professional sector versus 28% in elementary occupations and 26% in services and sales. This makes them more vulnerable to food insecurity – 39% of Venezuelan households experience moderate to severe food insecurity in Peru – as well as to gender-based violence.

“The Peruvian government is very weak, and one of the things they believe may boost their power or recognition within the population is to fight migration.”

Meanwhile, on the streets and in Peruvian homes, conversations over the country’s political, economic, and social situation often veer towards blaming Venezuelans for rising criminality, even though the data regarding incarceration rates by nationality suggests otherwise.

In Lima and elsewhere in Latin America, news headlines featuring the Tren de Aragua – a Venezuelan gang that used migration flows to expand transnationally – have reinforced this narrative, even though in many cases Venezuelan migrants are among the organisation´s victims of extortion, human trafficking, and exploitation.

“The Peruvian government is very weak, and one of the things they believe may boost their power or recognition within the population is to fight migration,” said O’Diana. “They have very skilfully linked the fight against immigration to the fight against crime, and that is something that we have to fight against.”

The economic hit

This trend of driving Venezuelans away, experts say, doesn’t just harm the Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Because of the lack of integration policies, Peru and other countries in the region are missing an opportunity for economic development.

A joint UNHCR-Inter American Development Bank-OECD study looking at Latin America and the Caribbean recently concluded that, just as they do in the rest of the region, migrants in Peru – mostly Venezuelans – contribute positively to the local economy by filling labour market gaps. Rates of Venezuelan employment in Peru are higher than within the local population and so are education levels among the displaced.

The outside of a Venezuelan food shop called Punto Venezolano.
Paula Dupraz-Dobias/TNH
One of the many Venezuelan restaurants in Lima. While 32% of Venezuelans in Peru have post-secondary education, only 2% hold positions in the professional sector, compared to 26% in services and sales.

“The populist narrative is that more migrants means fewer local jobs and fewer resources,” said Forero. “The reality is that the region is highly informal in terms of the labour market, and that hasn’t changed because of migration.”

For O’Diana, focusing on the economic benefits of migration could help change perceptions, at least in Peru where the economy has struggled to recover after the pandemic, leaving 70% of the population in poverty.

“When you put on the table the numbers, amid economic problems and the recession, that type of language can make an impact not only in public opinion and the government, but particularly within the ruling class,” he said.

The good news, Carrillo from UNHCR said, is that within government agencies, authorities have been very receptive to such reports, including a World Bank study highlighting the development and fiscal benefits of migration. Often, he added, the issue is more about having the right regulations in place, for instance to spend on public projects in communities with large displaced populations.

But for many Venezuelans, any changes in their host communities’ mindsets are too slow to come

Although he decided to stay in Lima, Osmundo has discouraged his twin children from joining him. His migration has allowed them to finish their university studies – a first for his family. But in Peru, he said they wouldn't be able to work in their field. 

“There are lots of educated, intelligent Venezuelans who have had to migrate because they can’t stay there,” he said. “But if you arrive here with a degree, they don’t recognise your diploma. It’s worthless… I prefer to tell my children to go [to the US].” 

*This story has been corrected to attribute these statistics to a World Bank-UNHCR report, instead of a data visualisation study based on this report. This updated version was published on 19 April 2024.

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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