Fewer options abroad for fleeing Venezuelans

Venezuelan migrants look on as a truck drive closes the tarp to cover the rear to avoid getting caught. The truck is ferrying across the cold plateau, known as El Páramo de Berlín – the most dangerous part of the Andes to get to the other side, towards Bucaramanga, Colombia.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)
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Countries across Latin America and the Caribbean are making it increasingly difficult for the millions of people fleeing Venezuela to find sanctuary abroad.

New visa and passport requirements have spurred unauthorized border crossings as more migrants “turn to dangerous and irregular migration channels,” according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.

The new restrictions suggest rising fatigue among countries that have been taking in Venezuelan migrants since the massive exodus began five years ago, following the collapse of their nation’s once-robust economy.

Venezuelan migrants start their day before sunrise as they leave a shelter in Pamplona, Colombia, in May 2019.
Venezuelan migrants start their day before sunrise as they leave a shelter in Pamplona, Colombia, in May 2019.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

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In the early days of the crisis, Venezuelans were able to travel with ease. In most places, no visa was required, and some countries didn’t even demand passports. But as conditions in Venezuela became more dire and the migrants came to be seen as a potential burden, countries began clamping down.

The report, which was published this week, examined immigration policies in 11 countries, which have taken in 3.9 million Venezuelans over the past five years. Some 42% went to Colombia, with 22% going to Peru and 9% to Ecuador.

By December, four of the countries — Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago — had added visa requirements. Passports, which have become increasingly expensive in Venezuela, are now required by seven of the countries.

Colombia, in contrast, still permits Venezuelans to enter without visas. It also allows most Venezuelans to enter the border zone with only a national ID card. Peru and Chile waive some requirements for people with close relatives who have already relocated.

Officials in receiving countries say that the new rules are meant to ensure public safety and promote orderly migration.

“We have to take action to improve and guarantee the the safety of Peru’s citizen’s,” the country’s president, Martín Vizcarra said last year when he announced the changes.

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Delimar Fonseca, 18, rests with her family and friends on the side of the Route 55 near Jimenez, Colombia as vehicles speed past.
Delimar Fonseca, 18, rests with her family and friends on the side of the Route 55 near Jimenez, Colombia as vehicles speed past.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

The report concluded that the restrictions are putting Venezuelan migrants in greater danger. “These requirements do not appear to be slowing migration but have redirected many migrants from legal to illegal routes, often empowering smugglers and traffickers in the process,” it said.

A separate study released this week by the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation in Colombia found that 378 Venezuelan migrants were “assassinated” along the Colombian-Venezuelan border between 2017 and 2019 and that 71 children have been recruited by armed groups.

Luis Carlos Rodríguez De La Cruz, an advocacy officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Latin America and the Caribbean, which assists Venezuelan migrants who have been forced to relocate, said the desperation and vulnerability of people fleeing Venezuela has increased over time.

“The first to leave were more well-off, followed by young people, especially men,” he said. “Now, those who stayed behind — usually wives, children, grandparents — are making the trek to reconnect with their loved ones.”

The Migration Policy Institute’s report also documents rising resentment against the migrants, which is often reflected in what services are made available to them in receiving countries.

In some places, migrants are denied access to public education despite policies that are supposed to guarantee families the right to enroll their children in schools.

Likewise, some healthcare providers have turned away migrants, particularly in regions where resources and personnel were scarce even before the newcomers arrived.

When it comes to finding jobs, Venezuelan migrants often wind up in the informal economy, selling food and trinkets, even though on the whole they have more education than local citizens.

Venezuelans walk the perilous journey from the Venezuela-Colombia border, as they make their way through the countryside in cold plateau, known as El Páramo de Berlín. Each day an estimate of 5000 people flee Venezuela.
Venezuelans walk the perilous journey from the Venezuela-Colombia border, as they make their way through the countryside in cold plateau, known as El Páramo de Berlín. Each day an estimate of 5000 people flee Venezuela.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

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“Venezuelans seem likely to continue to emigrate in large numbers for the foreseeable future,” the report states. “What seemed at first to be short-term migration crises have thus become more enduring phenomena.”

It recommends moving away from emergency responses to long-term integration policies and involving the private sector, possibly through investments aimed at employing migrants to increase the supply of skilled labor.

For Rodríguez De La Cruz, this idea is not far-fetched.

“We go out of our way to create free trade agreements to ensure that merchandise can flow across borders with the greatest ease,” he said. “But the first thing we should be thinking about is how human beings, who generate all nations’ wealth, can have the chance to reach their full potential.”