Week Six: Venezuela

In partnership with the DREAM (Data, Research and Analysis of Migration) Research Area of the Institute of Law, Politics and Development, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University

Chiara Scissa, Institute of Law, Politics and Development, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies


Overview of the Conflict

Venezuela, a country that has traditionally been a generous host to refugees, continues to experience its own displacement crisis. At the time of writing, this humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has become the second largest international displacement crisis in the world. Venezuela’s political conflict persists. Nicolás Maduro was first elected President of Venezuela in April 2013, following the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and again in 2018 in what the opposition parties considered to be highly controversial and manipulated polls. Indeed, many candidates had been barred from running, while others had been imprisoned or fled the country for fear of being jailed. More than fifty countries (including the US and many Latin American countries) recognized his opponent, Mr Guaidó, as the legitimate president, thus challenging Maduro’s presidency. In Venezuela, generalized violence and systematic violations of human rights have urged the international community to investigate the possibility of crimes against humanity perpetrated by state and non-state actors.

The independent international fact-finding mission of Venezuela established by the Human Rights Council in 2019 expressed its great concern about continued allegations of 1) extrajudicial executions; 2) killings and torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, as well as arbitrary detentions involving state police and military forces; 3) severe human rights violations including enforced disappearances and grave violations against indigenous groups perpetrated by members of the military and non-state armed actors. The lack of judicial independence contributed to the impunity for these crimes, where, according to Human Rights Watch, judicial authorities have participated or been complicit in the abuses.

In March 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on “some” initiatives to reform the justice system and restructure the national police as promising steps, also welcoming the conviction of state agents for homicide and torture. However, the High Commissioner reiterated the absolute urgency to release civilians and opponents arbitrarily detained in order to guarantee independent and public sources of information. It also highlighted a need to investigate all allegations of the human rights violations committed by armed non-state actors and criminal groups that have led to the escalating violence and forced displacement of thousands of Venezuelans. Political corruption, chronic shortages of food and medicine, closure of businesses, unemployment, deterioration of productivity, authoritarianism, human rights violations, gross economic mismanagement and high dependence on oil have further contributed to the worsening crisis.

Displacement in Numbers

Since 2014, over 6 million Venezuelans, approximately 20% of the country’s total population, have fled their country as a result of the political turmoil, socio-economic instability and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Most sought refuge in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Neighboring Colombia was the main destination of Venezuelan refugees, hosting over 1.7 million. Peru came in second, as almost 950,000 Venezuelans had emigrated there, followed by Chile, where over 500,000 Venezuelans resided after leaving their home country. According to UNHCR, this has become the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world.

Venezuelans face extreme poverty due to the severe economic crisis that has been affecting the country for years, a reality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The opportunity to leave Venezuela in a regular manner is, therefore, very limited. Few people have enough financial resources to request a visa or to book a flight. Compelled to migrate through irregular channels, they are exposed to heightened risk of trafficking and smuggling, as well as to exploitation and abuses by armed groups.

In Latin American countries, Venezuelan refugees and migrants are often stigmatized, rendering it increasingly difficult for them to access labour markets and public services. They additionally continue to face xenophobia. In Ecuador, 65% of Venezuelan men and women have reported feeling discrimination while out on the streets. NGOs also report that there is a high level of verbal violence towards migrants, including insults, threats, and shows of contempt. In Peru, posts related to attacks against Venezuelans in the country began circulating on social media in late 2019. Leaflets continue to circulate demanding migrants leave the country.

Realities in Host Countries

While many neighboring governments welcomed Venezuelans, the persisting lack of a coordinated regional strategy has left many stranded in inadequate conditions or unable to receive refugee status and other forms of legal protections. In some countries, Venezuelans continue to be deported, and encounter difficulties obtaining affordable health care, education, or legal status that would permit them to work.

Host countries have also been pushed to their limits by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, these nations have turned their resources inward to help sustain their own social infrastructures. These trying times have all but exhausted the political will to assist and support refugees. The economic impact of the pandemic and host government lockdowns led an estimated 151,000 Venezuelans to return home between March 2020 and March 2021, the UNHCR reported. According to international human rights organizations, returnees were held in overcrowded, unsanitary quarantine centers, where they suffered threats, harassment, and abuse by Venezuelan authorities. In 2021, Human Rights Watch released a report alleging “credible allegations of government involvement and acquiescence” in violent abuses against people working in illegal gold mines. Venezuelan women and girls were also reported to be traveling hours or days to cross the border into Colombia to earn money as sex workers.

Since 2014, the number of Venezuelans applying for refugee status has increased 8,000%. According to the UNHCR, less than 143,000 Venezuelans have received refugee status, close to 800,000 have asylum claims pending, and another 2.5 million have received temporary residency permits since 2014. In early 2021, Colombia committed to grant ten-year Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the more than 1.7 million Venezuelans residing within its borders. Prior to this decision, only 56% had regular status. According to Migration Colombia, the TPS will contribute to guaranteeing the rights of Venezuelans and ultimately ensure their access to essential services such as health, education, housing, basic goods, services, and the formal labor market. It additionally grants Venezuelans identity cards and allows them to access the COVID-19 vaccine.

In March 2021, the US government authorized TPS to the estimated 320,000 Venezuelans already present in the US without legal status. Since then, the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum at the border has increased, with a record number of 13,406 intercepted in October 2021. These new asylum seekers are not eligible for TPS, but are also not being deported in-line with the non-refoulement principle.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

The international community remains divided over how to respond to the political crisis in Venezuela. The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional multilateral organization that includes all thirty-five independent countries of the Western Hemisphere (Cuba currently does not participate), has focused attention on Venezuela’s political crisis in recent years. Since 2016, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro has issued reports on Venezuela, and convened special sessions of the Permanent Council to discuss regional responses to the crisis. The OAS requires eighteen votes to pass a resolution of the Permanent Council.

Throughout the region, UNHCR has stepped up its response and is working closely with host governments and partners, particularly IOM, to support a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the needs of refugees and migrants from Venezuela. They continue to support states in improving reception conditions, coordinating the provision of information and assistance to meet Venezuelans’ immediate basic needs including shelter; and combating discrimination and xenophobia through awareness campaigns. UNHCR is also supporting government regularization efforts in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru Dominican Republic, Uruguay and other countries that are facilitating documentation and seeking solutions to regularize and offer protection to the Venezuelan population. In 2019, Russia and China vetoed a US resolution in the UN Security Council on addressing the crisis in Venezuela, but a counter-proposal from Moscow did not win enough votes.