If recent events in Venezuela have taught us one thing, it’s that national crises are no longer strictly national in scope. Because even if the harshest effects of Venezuela’s current downward spiral are being felt mostly within the South American republic, it has also produced an acute refugee crisis that’s spilling into other borders. And as Venezuela’s political and economic woes have deepened in recent months, so has the strain placed on its neighbors, which as a result are now experiencing their own political and humanitarian dilemmas.
Venezuela’s economic decline has been stark, to say the least. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s economy contracted by 58.9% between 2013 and 2018, a decline brought about by a toxic combination of shrinking oil revenues, economic mismanagement, and – more recently – harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States. The upshot of this steep downturn has been a hyperinflation crisis, as the government printed more and more money to cover its debts. And because the Venezuelan bolívar inflated by 80,000% last year, the nation’s population has found it increasingly difficult to buy food and survive from day to day.
Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of Venezuelans are turning to migration as an escape from this unenviable situation. Even in August 2018, 2.3 million of them had already left their homeland since 2014, crossing the Venezuelan border into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. But with US sanctions hitting hard since the beginning of the year, even more are set to become (semi-)voluntary refugees in the near future. The United Nations predicts that there will be a grand total of 5.3 million by the end of 2019.
On the one hand, this increase has predictably severe implications for the people forced to become refugees. Malteser International – an international Catholic charity – has recently reported that the situation of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia has become ever more desperate, with many facing conditions no better than those they left behind.
“We have seen many people living on the streets, sleeping under bridges and falling very ill as a result of this situation,” Ravi Tripptrap – the director of Malteser International Americas – said in February. “Many are completely overworked and are in need of urgent healthcare, a roof over their heads and security.”
However, while the situation has become so bad that there were 216 suicide attempts by refugees in Colombia in 2018, the growing presence of Venezuelans in Colombia, Brazil and other nations is beginning to have delicate political implications for their new home countries.
In Colombia – now home to over one million refugees – the opening of a migrant camp in Bogotà was met with protests from locals, while the government officially closed its border with Venezuela in February. Meanwhile, the national media has been accused of demonizing Venezuelan migrants, something which is likely to stir up increased anti-immigrant feeling in the country. “We have seen a lot of media focusing on Venezuelans committing crimes without presenting any wider context,” Rocío Castañeda – a spokesperson for the UNHCR – told Devex in November.
In Brazil, the political fallout from the crisis is even worse, despite there being only around 96,000 refugees in South America’s largest nation. In August, Brazilian residents in Pacaraima attacked and drove out hundreds of Venezuelan migrants camping in the border town, while a month later the Brazilian government dispatched the army to the border in order to prevent similar violence. Yet the election of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro – who once described refugees as “escória do mundo” (scum of the Earth) – has given a clear political expression to these anti-immigrant tensions, with the recently elected president withdrawing Brazil from the UN Global Compact for Migration in January.
Brazil’s rejection of a major international pact on granting migrants basic rights sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the global community, and one that may be followed by other nations if the refugee crisis in Venezuela deepens. Indeed, strong xenophobic sentiment has also been expressed, for example, in Ecuador, where a number of attacks against Venezuelan refugees were committed in January. And given that Venezuelan migrants are now appearing further afield than South America, in the US, Spain, Italy, and Israel, it’s possible that the crisis in Venezuela could place further strain on already strained nations.
It’s difficult to predict whether Venezuela’s problems will get worse before they get better. But if they do, it’s clear that the expanding ranks of Venezuelan refugees could end up playing an unwitting role in the spread of anti-immigrant sentiment that’s already occurring in many parts of the globe. That’s why it’s imperative for the international community to help Venezuela work towards a peaceful solution to its problems that’s acceptable to all sides.