By the year’s end it will rival Syria as the world’s worst refugee crisis, on current trends. But it has grabbed far less international attention and received only a fraction of the aid money. Venezuela’s refugee crisis is not the result of war or natural disaster but the consequences are no less shocking. About 5.5m people, more than one in six of the population, have fled the catastrophic economic mismanagement and brutal political repression of President Nicolás Maduro over the past six years.
The largest single contingent, numbering nearly 2m, has settled in neighbouring Colombia. A middle-income country with limited resources stretched further by the coronavirus pandemic, Colombia has problems of its own, notably the complex legacy of decades of guerrilla insurgency and paramilitary killings.
This makes President Iván Duque’s decision last week to grant legal status to the Venezuelan refugee population in Colombia all the more remarkable. Duque promised temporary protected status for 10 years, allowing the émigrés to work legally and access vital public services such as health and education.
Quoting Pope Francis’s appeal last year to welcome, protect and support migrants, the Colombian president justified his move on humanitarian grounds. Colombia and Venezuela share a common history and culture; after independence from Spain, they were one nation, part of Simón Bolívar’s shortlived “Gran Colombia”. In the previous century, Colombians flocked to Venezuela to work in the oil industry, before the economic tide turned.
Duque correctly pointed to broader benefits from allowing the refugees to legalise their status. The economy will be boosted as more Venezuelans take formal employment, paying taxes and social security; fewer than one in five are thought to do so now. As the estimated 1m refugees who did not register with the authorities upon entry become legal residents, they will carry papers, improving security and protecting them from criminals. The public health benefits of offering them vaccinations are obvious.
Colombia’s is an example the US Congress could usefully follow; encouragingly, a group of senators last month introduced a bipartisan bill which would grant the estimated 200,000 Venezuelans in America temporary protected status.
Duque’s grand gesture is also brave. The president is battling a wave of hostility to incumbent governments which has spread along the Andes, taking in Ecuador, Peru and Chile. He lacks strong popular appeal or a reliable majority in Congress. While most Colombians have welcomed the Venezuelans, a small minority has attempted to stir xenophobic passions. No other Latin American country has been as generous; Chile recently deported a group of mainly Venezuelan migrants said to have entered illegally.
In a world where nationalist sentiments have all too often been stoked against refugees and migrants, Colombia’s gesture stands out as an example. It deserves to succeed, but an enormous effort is needed to document the Venezuelans, issue papers and ensure they receive shelter and basic services. The outside world must lend support.
A UN-organised appeal for $1.4bn last year to help the Venezuelan refugees was only half-funded. The US was generous with its donations — only fair, since the sanctions it imposed on Venezuela contributed to the humanitarian crisis — but Europe, the UK and Japan could and should do far more. With Maduro entrenched in power, the biggest refugee crisis in the history of the Americas is not going away.