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Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

Raul Arboleda/AFP
Venezuelan migrants climb on a truck on the road from Cúcuta to Pamplona, Colombia, on 10 February 2019.

How we treat Venezuelans in exile will shape the future trajectory of their country and the wider region.

Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have now fled economic and political collapse. More than 1.1 million of them are in Colombia. And yet the Colombian government has recognised that displaced Venezuelans don’t have to be a burden; they can contribute economically, provided the right policies are adopted and there is adequate international support.

Colombia is allowing Venezuelans who regularise their migration status to work and access public services, even at great cost to the state. And although over half a million Venezuelans are still in an irregular situation because they require a passport from Venezuela in order to regularise their status, there are signs even this may change.

Read more: Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

The Colombian government is trying to adapt its public employment service to support integration. In that sense, it follows in the footsteps of countries like Uganda and Turkey, which, despite receiving more than a million refugees, have viewed socio-economic integration, rather than encampment, as both the appropriate policy response and an opportunity for national development.

But the international community is slow to follow.

Most UN agencies and donors remain focused on providing humanitarian assistance at the borders. This contrasts with the global zeitgeist, and the Global Compact on Refugees’ focus on development-based approaches to displacement. The World Bank is among the few organisations to make the leap, making Colombia eligible for funding on the basis of facing a mass influx situation.

Part of the reason for the absence of development-based support is that Colombia and its neighbours are middle-income countries. But a major part of it is also how Venezuelans are labelled. Describing them as ‘refugees’ would draw in a governance apparatus that today includes development actors. But the Venezuelans are being labelled as ‘migrants’ and that is shaping the governance response and the degree of engagement by UNHCR and others.

The Venezuelan crisis parallels the Zimbabwean exodus of the early 2000s. Between 2003 and 2010, some two million Zimbabweans fled across to South Africa and other neighbouring states. Like Venezuelans, most were fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Basic services were no longer available; poor governance and hyperinflation had ravaged the economy. Most were not recognised as refugees; they were ‘survival migrants’, fleeing fragile and failed states but not recognised as refugees.

Legally, it is incontrovertible that most Venezuelans fit the 1984 Cartagena Declaration definition of a refugee; they are clearly fleeing ‘massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’. But, as with Zimbabweans in the early 2000s, there are strong interests in not invoking the ‘refugee’ label. And there is the valid question of what value the ‘refugee’ label would actually add given that Colombia already has a backlog of over 2,000 people in its asylum system – registering Venezuelans for refugee status determination would be slow and cumbersome, and few Venezuelans are actively seeking international protection.

Development assistance must be unlocked

The risk of being at the margins of global refugee governance, as the Venezuelan exodus is, is that host countries are not receiving the support and guidance that befits the world’s biggest current displacement crisis.

The IOM-UNHCR joint platform helps coordinate humanitarian aid and their joint special envoy, Eduardo Stein, offers valuable advocacy. But, today, the relevant governance innovations that bring support for the socio-economic inclusion of displaced populations come through the global refugee regime. UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), for example, would be highly relevant to Colombia and other neighbouring states, if it were applied. It offers a mechanism for engaging development actors and the private sector in supporting opportunities for Venezuelans and citizens alike. But it is simply not on the table.

Even if Venezuelans are seen as survival migrants rather than refugees, the most relevant policy responses can still be derived from historical responses to refugees. The Mexico City Plan of Action of 2004, for example, elaborated two concepts for refuge in Latin America: ‘Cities of Solidarity’ (Ciudades Solidarias) and ‘Borders of Solidarity’ (Fronteras Solidarias).

Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees.

For host cities and border zones, development plans are needed that offer new employment opportunities for both Venezuelans and receiving country citizens. In Colombia, initial research by UNHCR suggests that Venezuelans might fill important gaps in the fast food sector or the seasonal flower industry, for example. In the border zones, there may be different types of opportunity. In La Guajira, for example, the ecotourism industry has potential. In Norte de Santander, textiles or agriculture might offer employment.

A number of other countries have already used the mass influx of refugees as an opportunity for regional development in remote border areas. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for instance benefited immensely from the local integration of Guatemalan refugees during the 1990s. Uganda has attracted development assistance to remote border areas in both the South-West and Nile Valley regions of the country, for example. In Colombia, relations between the central and local governments are often strained, but new resources may offer the chance to build a new relationship between central government and the border areas.

Arguably the most successful precedent of channelling development assistance to support refugees comes from the region. The International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA) of 1989 outlined a range of development programmes to support refugees’ economic integration. It attracted around half a billion dollars of investment, mainly from European donors and the United States.

Crucially, the conference was not a one-off pledging conference but a multi-year process that built trust and credibility, and included concrete follow-up mechanisms. It involved leadership by an inter-agency secretariat. Of particular relevance, CIREFCA focused not just on ‘refugees’, but also ‘externally displaced persons’ and ‘internally displaced persons’.

Might a similar ‘International Conference on Venezuelan Migrants’, for example, serve as a catalyst for a development-based approach? Such ‘solidarity conferences’ are a key part of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Venezuelan context might offer opportunity for one of the first such events. It could serve the host countries of the entire region, including Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile under the ethos of ‘Venezuelan migration as an opportunity for development’.

Regardless of whether there is consensus for such a process, international engagement for both humanitarian and development is urgently needed. And irrespective of how we label the crisis and the affected population, Latin America’s own history offers a litany of relevant practices.

Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees. What is at stake is not only the needs of millions of Venezuelans but also the future stability and prosperity of the region.

(TOP PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants climb on a truck on the road from Cúcuta to Pamplona, Colombia, on 10 February 2019. CREDIT: Raul Arboleda/AFP)

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