New requirements for Venezuelans to hold “humanitarian visas” before entering Peru will drive large numbers of migrants into the informal economy, where they will lose protection, assistance, and government services, aid groups are warning.
Peru is the second most popular destination country after Colombia for the more than four million Venezuleans the UN estimates have fled their country’s economic and political meltdown since 2015.
There are now more than 768,000 Venezuelans in Peru, including more than a quarter of a million new arrivals since the start of the year, many of whom rushed in to take advantage of the country’s comparatively strong economy – and job opportunities – before recent restrictions came into force.
Read more → Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru
Until 15 June, Venezuelans could enter Peru and apply for a temporary residency permit, or PTP, which allowed them to live and work in the Andean nation for a year. This permit, which also gave them access to training, healthcare, and public education, could be renewed on an annual basis.
But President Martin Vizcarra announced in early June – six months after giving a deadline for the final PTPs to be issued – that Venezuelan migrants would now be required to obtain a “humanitarian visa” before entering the country.
The visa, which allows holders to live and work in Peru, is free, but aid officials fear most aren’t able to obtain it as securing the required documentation is costly and beyond the reach of most Venezuelans, whose minimum wage has fallen to $5 per month due to the acute economic crisis.
“Measures like these may generate an increase in human trafficking, trafficking of migrants, and illicit border crossings,” warned Rogelio Quintero, programme director in Lima for the IOM, the UN’s migration body.
Quintero said that not having a proper entry stamp – denoting the visa – now puts Venezuelan migrants in irregular situations that means they lose all access to public services.
Laurent Burkhalter, head of the protection division at the International Committee of the Red Cross regional office in Lima, said the new measures were making it very difficult to plan as they didn’t know how many Venezuelans would need which services as they budget ahead to 2020.
“Contingency plans for international humanitarian activities are being updated,” said Burkhalter. “The level of unpredictability is rather big.”
A staff member of Peru’s foreign ministry, which is responsible for migration, told The New Humanitarian that the new measures are aimed at "improving" conditions for Venezuelan migrants.
“Measures like these may generate an increase in human trafficking, trafficking of migrants, and illicit border crossings.”
The staff member, who asked not to be named, said that after the PTP programme ended many Venezuelan refugee applicants were unable to "easily" enter the legal economy, which the humanitarian visa allows migrants to do.
"The Peruvian government is concerned about all the people who may enter into informal work, and particularly those who put in danger their own human dignity, that may involve people-trafficking and labour and sexual exploitation,” he said.
An ‘insurmountable barrier’
The new visas can be obtained at Peru’s consular offices in Caracas and in Puerto Ordaz, a city 950 kilometres southeast of the Venezuelan capital. They are also available in Peruvian consular offices in Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, but not at the border crossing points or in Peru itself.
Applicants must have valid passports and present a clean criminal record. Entry with the visa allows Venezuelans to stay for up to six months – a period that may be renewed on demand – during which time they are allowed to work and receive the same benefits they did under the PTPs.
Angelo Malpica, a Venezuelan former student now working as a waiter at a restaurant in the Peruvian tourism hub of Cusco, told TNH that corrupt officials back in Venezuela set the fees according to how quickly people are trying to leave.
“It’s a dictatorship [in Venezuela] and [officials] can interpret the law as they wish,” he said, adding that obtaining a copy of clean criminal record can cost more than $100, in addition to $300 or more for a passport.
Requests to the Venezuelan embassy in Geneva for comment on the price of the documents and allegations of fraud – which several other Venezuelans also raised with TNH – went unanswered by time of publication.
The new measures represent an “insurmountable barrier” for most Venezuelans wanting to enter Peru, according to The Working Group on Venezuelan Human Mobility, a collection of civil society organisations from around the region that includes Amnesty International and the NGOs Mercy Corps and Oxfam.
The group urged that asylum applications at the border not be affected. Venezuelans may request asylum status online if they are in the Peruvian capital, Lima, or at a regional office of the foreign ministry, which processes the requests. But the application process is slow and hard. According to numbers published in the El Comercio daily, only 400 of 240,000 Venezuelan applicants by February this year had succeeded in achieving refugee status.
Daily numbers of Venezuelans crossing into Peru rose steadily last year, but spiked to a record 6,700 on 31 October 2018, the last day before they could enter without a passport. A new record of more than 9,000 entered on 14 June 2019, the last day before the visa restriction became law.
In the week following the implementation of the visa law, numbers were sharply down. On 20 June, some 645 entered through official crossings, according to IOM.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a visa or a passport; everything has a price.”
Many doubt the tighter regulations will actually halt arrivals.
Juan – a Venezuelan tattoo artist living in Cusco who arrived in Peru early this year after travelling through Ecuador on a fake entry stamp – explained that corrupt officials and taxi drivers are routinely willing to “help” Venezuelans cross illegally.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a visa or a passport; everything has a price,” said Juan, who requested that his last name not be published. “You can go from Venezuela [all the way] to Chile without police or immigration officials stopping you.”
Upon arriving at the Peruvian border, Juan said he simply took a cab early in the morning to avoid the morning shift at the immigration office. “The systems throughout the continent are corrupted,” he said.
The Peruvian Red Cross is setting up a welcome centre for new arrivals in southeastern Puerto Maldonado, the first city in Peru for many Venezuelans coming from Brazil. The centre aims to help newcomers locate family members and offers information on where to locate social services.
“They leave their families behind and are moving toward an uncertain future,” Maria Josefina Garcia, the president of the Peruvian Red Cross, told TNH. “Coming here wears them down a lot. It hurts. Before giving them a survival kit, we will offer psychological help.”
Garcia criticised the new entry requirements, saying they expose new arrivals to greater vulnerability, including smugglers and traffickers: “This will force corruption, abuses, illegality, as there will be no control or border checks for those entering into the country informally. That is not good.”
Migrants, she warned, may be tempted to enter illegal sectors of employment. “There is a lot of illegal mining here. These young people, women, men, may disappear without a trace.”
Police estimate that some 30,000 people are involved in illegal gold mining in Peru, including in Puerto Maldonado, where the metal – mined from vast deforested areas of the Peruvian Amazon – is bought and sold. As many as 100,000 people are estimated to rely on the sector.
The visa rule came after Interior Minister Carlos Moran linked a rise in crime in Peruvian cities to the higher numbers of Venezuelans.
Announcing the new requirement at Lima’s airport as 52 Venezuelans were deported on a military plane to Caracas, the third such flight in less than a month, President Vizcarra said it would “assure orderly and secure migration”, and vowed to expel those who entered illegally.
“We will not accept people who commit crimes,” Vizcarra said. “[We will expel] whatever number is necessary: 500, 800, 1,000, or 2,000.”
Garcia, the Peruvian Red Cross president, noted a rise in xenophobia towards Venezuelans in Peru. “A lot of people say, ‘these immigrants come to bother us’,” even though they are coming to contribute to the economy, she said.
Quintero said the IOM was sensitive to criticism that humanitarian groups may be focusing too much on Venezuelan migrants at the expense of Peru’s own vulnerable populations.
In recent months, IOM and UNHCR have organised goodwill projects, such as rubbish collection by Venezuelan migrants on beaches and flash mobs featuring Venezuelan musicians in Lima.
“People here are kind and sharing,” said Malpica, the waiter in Cusco. “I really like that. I don’t find it is unjust, but rather sad that they want to restrict us. In a country of 30 million or so people, we are not so many Venezuelans that one would need to restrict us.”
(TOP PHOTO: Juan, a Venezuelan in Cusco, says he doesn’t really exist in Peru after entering the country illegally.)