Ailet Bilbao could no longer afford to feed her children despite her salary as a medical professional in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. Driving home one evening, she and her family were kidnapped by armed criminals. They escaped, only to be extorted when reporting the incident to the police.
“The police recovered my car, then demanded a bribe to return it to me,” Bilbao told The New Humanitarian. “I couldn’t pay it. That was the moment I knew we had to go.”
Ailet, 48, fled to live with relatives in Spain in 2018 with her daughters, aged 15 and 17, and nothing more than two suitcases. They have become members of one of the fastest-growing global diasporas – among an estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans to have fled their collapsing country since 2015.
The Bilbaos were fortunate – they had passports. Officially, a passport costs about $8 to obtain from inside Venezuela, but many emigrants told TNH the actual cost is $100–$300 due to the bribes necessary to ensure its arrival. In a country where 90 percent of the population works for a minimum wage of roughly $6 per month, that is far beyond the reach of most.
This means the majority who choose to leave – whether for economic, security, or health reasons – have to make perilous journeys overland, often without the requisite documentation needed to find work or receive assistance in the countries they flee to.
US-led sanctions are further crippling a collapsed economy that suffers from 10 million percent inflation, plummeting oil production, widespread failures of the electrical grid, and a non-functional medical system. While the crisis worsens, the number of those desperate masses leaving is increasing.
Read more → Venezuela: Millions at risk at home and abroad
As the diaspora spreads across the region, many destination countries are reeling from the impact, and social and legal barriers that prevent Venezuelans from integrating are on the rise. This year, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador all restricted entry to the millions fleeing, many of whom do so on foot carrying backpacks with little more than blankets and a few basic provisions.
Where are they going?
Venezuelan population: 1,488,000
Immigration restrictions: Officially, the Colombian government requires only a photo ID from Venezuelans for entry, though in practice the 2,219-kilometre border between Venezuela and Colombia is porous and impossible to control. A Special Stay Permit is available to immigrants with documents, with nearly 600,000 applicants as of October – providing full access to education, healthcare, and employment.
Colombia continues to be the country most impacted by the arrival of refugees from Venezuela and hosts by far the largest population.
The UN’s most recent Refugee and Migrant Response Plan report stated: “Half of the families interviewed face specific risks because of their age, gender, health or other needs, or because they had to make drastic choices to cope, including begging, sending their children to work or even resorting to survival sex.”
Colombia has been praised for its response to the exodus, and some reports say the diaspora is supercharging the Colombian economy.
However, as other regional countries restrict access, the share of the response burden on Colombia is only expected to increase. Asylum, health, and education systems in the country are overwhelmed, and Colombia faces an acute shortfall of resources.
Venezuelan population: 863,000
Immigration restrictions: A passport and visa for entry. Only pregnant women and children under the age of five have access to free public healthcare.
Peru hosts the second largest population of migrants from Venezuela worldwide, after Colombia.
A poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies in June, found that 73 percent of Peruvians are opposed to Venezuelan immigration.
Peru is currently experiencing an intense rise in xenophobia, stoked by media blaming Venezuelans for a rising crime rate. But government data tells a different story; in 2018 less than one percent of crimes in Peru were committed by Venezuelans, and the crime rate among all immigrants is actually falling.
Nonetheless, 50 percent of those questioned in a February study said they believed that “many Venezuelans engaged in criminal activities”.
Many refugees from Venezuelan face challenges obtaining permanent housing, and the high tax rate on those without citizenship creates an additional hurdle – 72 percent of Venezuelans are employed informally.
Venezuelan population: 400,000
Immigration restrictions: Passport and visa for entry. Right to work programme is available to those who qualify, but during the first year income is taxed at 35 percent. All children have access to the education system, regardless of migratory status. Healthcare coverage depends on insurance status – most Venezuelans are not enrolled in any plan.
Like much of Latin America, integration of Venezuelans remains a challenge and officials fear existing tensions may increase during elections scheduled to take place in October 2020.
Civil unrest has also made migrants more vulnerable as businesses cut back on costs. A shrinking economy means less employers are hiring, and transportation infrastructure has been damaged. Government and regional groups blaming Venezuelan ‘agitators’ for ongoing violent protests has recently increased xenophobia as well.
Evelin Castro, 38, arrived in the Chilean capital, Santiago, just before the protests began. “I am afraid to leave my apartment,” she said by email. “(Protesters) burned the supermarket across the street, and the lack of public transport has made finding a job much more difficult.”
Castro said she hadn’t personally experienced xenophobia, but is often afraid to speak in public, worried that her accent will make her a target.
Venezuelan population: 385,000
Immigration Restrictions: Passport, a visa and criminal background check. Access to education for all people is guaranteed without distinction.
Medical services provided to refugees and migrants from Venezuela have increased steadily since 2015, though funding for these programmes is strained, leading to long waiting times.
The right to work is difficult to achieve for new arrivals, the UN reports that 88.1 percent of the Venezuelan population currently work informally for less than the minimum wage.
Aedra Delgado, 20, who works remotely for a Miami company, is a Venezuelan living in the Ecuadoran capital, Quito.
“We can only get jobs in restaurants or fast-food places informally,” she said. “In places such as offices, hotels etc., they specify that they won’t take applications from foreigners.”
New immigration restrictions put in place on 25 August have also led to an increase in human trafficking. Ecuador recently announced a government initiative to combat this problem, which has included cases of forced prostitution.
Xenophobia is increasing as well. The number of Venezuelans subjected to violent attacks is on the rise. This has been exacerbated by Ecuador’s government recently blaming “outside agitators” for nationwide protests in October.
Venezuelan population: 299,000
Immigration restrictions: Requires passports and a visa. Although it is theoretically possible to apply for asylum, recent changes in immigration law have made the process more difficult. Migrant advocate groups report dozens of cases of Venezuelans being held in detention for months before being deported.
Venezuelans have recently become one of the leading applicant groups for asylum status, though in 2018 about half of those claims were rejected.
US foreign policy is at odds with its immigration policy. Although the US State Department regularly refers to President Nicolás Maduro as a “dictator” and denounces human rights violations in Venezuela, President Donald Trump’s administration has put up considerable legal barriers to obtaining asylum.
Venezuelan population: 224,000
Immigration restrictions: Brazil maintains an open border with Venezuela. The government has coordinated a strong response to the crisis. Migrants are granted the legal right to work immediately, despite a nearly 25 percent unemployment rate.
Though a less popular destination for those fleeing due to language differences and geographical barriers, the country finds itself strained by the influx of migration.
Most Venezuelans entering Brazil do so through an official port of entry near the border town of Pacaraima, which is cut off from the rest of Brazil by dense jungle and rainforests.
“Human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery are becoming more frequent, as refugees and migrants from Venezuela living in Brazil are being recruited for labour exploitation,” says a report on labour conditions from the Brazilian State Department.
Venezuelan population: 200,000
Immigration restrictions: Requires passport, immigrants can enrol in right to work and healthcare programmes upon arrival.
Despite welcoming immigration procedures that allow them to claim asylum, expensive air travel across the Atlantic Ocean is a barrier to the poorest of Venezuelans.
Xenophobia exists, said Ailet, but it’s subtle and in her experience mostly a problem in terms of getting work.
“Employers don’t accept my accreditation as a medical professional here, and some employers don’t take Venezuelans very seriously,” she said. “But these are barriers that can be overcome with hard work.”
Overall, she says it much better than the stories she hears from family members who chose to go to Ecuador and Peru.
The exodus is expected to exceed six million, or nearly 20 percent of the population of Venezuela, by the end of 2020.
Any positive effects for the region in terms of increased consumer demand and economic growth could be negated by the fact that health, immigration, and education systems in virtually all destination countries are under increasing strain. Funding from the UN, the EU, and the United States currently allocates only $84 to each Venezuelan. Aid groups have said this is woefully inadequate and called for a doubling of pledges from donor countries in 2020.
In the meantime, xenophobia is growing across the Americas, fuelled by growing nationalism, civil unrest, misconceptions that Venezuelans are criminals. The sexualisation of Venezuelan women has also led to an increase in gender-based violence.
Even if the political standoff were to be resolved tomorrow, Venezuela wouldn’t be able to resolve its profound internal problems any time soon. The largest immigration crisis in modern South American history appears set to continue for years, whether regional countries try to restrict movement or not.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.