As Venezuela’s humanitarian and economic crisis has grown deeper in recent years, the number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees abroad has surged to almost 6 million. The United Nations reports that 5.7 million Venezuelans have now fled the country, which makes up almost 20 percent of Venezuela’s population. This tragedy is the largest mass displacement in the hemisphere’s recent history.
While some countries in the Americas have taken meaningful action to facilitate the movement and reception of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, significant challenges remain across the region. Many of these challenges lie in a lack of access to regular status, without which migrants and refugees are unable to access the formal labor market, as well as public education and health systems in their host countries. The COVID-19 pandemic has been used by many countries to justify border closures, deportations, and other alarming measures that pose additional barriers for fleeing Venezuelans to access regular status and asylum. At the same time, the pandemic has only made the need for regular status more urgent, as in many countries those without it cannot access the public health system and/or pandemic-related economic bonus programs.
Serious gaps remain in the hemispheric response to Venezuelan migrants and refugees. But governments across the Americas are coming under increasing pressure to adopt humane policies that respond to the basic needs of fleeing Venezuelans and broaden access to regular status. Through #StandFor6Million, WOLA is featuring the work of civil society organizations in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil to identify gaps in their governments’ responses to fleeing Venezuelans, denounce inhumane and counterproductive policies, and work to address the needs of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in their host countries.
The Colombian government has made important advances to extend regular status to Venezuelan migrants and refugees. On March 5, the Duque government announced a program to regularize most of the 2 million Venezuelans living in Colombia for a period of 10 years under the Estatuto Temporal de Protección para Migrantes Venezolanos (ETPV), which is currently in Phase 2 of its implementation. In 2019, the government also granted Colombian nationality to more than 24,000 Venezuelan children who were born in the country after their parents crossed the border. While currently more than half of Venezuelans in Colombia do not have regular status, the ETPV program is expected to alleviate persisting gaps in access to health, education, and formal employment.
Featured organization: Dejusticia
- Dejusticia has been a strong ally for guaranteeing the right to health to Venezuelan refugees and migrants, taking the issue directly to the Constitutional Court in late 2019 to force a broader conversation on the needs of fleeing Venezuelans. In early 2021 the organization successfully advocated for Colombia’s national COVID-19 vaccination plan to be applied regardless of migratory status.
- More recently Dejusticia’s Lucía Ramírez Bolívar has monitored the implementation of the ETPV, raising concerns regarding the implication of this policy on the right to due process, access to refugee status, and more.
- Ramírez has pressed concerns regarding eligibility for the EPTV protection status, and the need for a differentiated response to groups with different needs, such as indigenous people, children and adolescents, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and victims of violence.
- Separately, Dejusticia researcher Lina Arroyave has raised privacy and security concerns around the requirement to provide biometric data in order to access the ETPV status.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peruvian government has increasingly militarized the border to restrict the flow of migrants into the country, with videos and photos emerging in early 2021 depicting human rights violations in highly militarized border regions, in one case with Peruvian military personnel opening fire on Venezuelan migrants along the border with Ecuador. Peru offers a humanitarian visa for Venezuelan migrants and refugees, but the documentation requirements to access this visa are very difficult for many to obtain, and the system to accept new asylum requests has been suspended. Approximately 44.37 percent of Venezuelans in the country lack regular status, affecting their ability to access essential services and protections.
Featured organization: Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos – Perú (CNDDHH)
While Ecuador initially served primarily as a transit country for Venezuelans traveling to other South American countries, this has changed in recent years as an increasing number have settled in Ecuador permanently. In 2019 Ecuador imposed a humanitarian visa requirement for Venezuelans (VERHU), which made it more difficult for many to enter the country through formal crossings. The Ecuadorian government closed the application process for the VERHU in August 2020, leaving few options for Venezuelans seeking regular status. Recently-elected President Guillermo Lasso has announced that his government would implement a new regularization process for Venezuelans in Ecuador, but further information about the implementation of this policy plan has not been revealed.
Featured organization: Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados (SJR) Ecuador
- In July, SJR Ecuador teamed up with dozens of civil society organizations to produce a series of recommendations for the Lasso government to address the needs of returned Ecuadorian migrants, asylees and refugees, and Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador. The report highlights the dire need for regular status for Venezuelans, and provides concrete recommendations for the Ecuadorian government to facilitate long-term residency and socioeconomic integration.
- In December 2020, la Red Clamor, a coalition of faith-based organizations that includes SJR Ecuador, collaborated to publish a comprehensive report detailing the situation for migrants and refugees in Ecuador, the impact of the pandemic on these groups, and the work the organizations of la Red Clamor have carried out in various provinces across the country.
- In January 2020, SJR joined a group of civil society organizations to launch a campaign titled “Nothing about migrants without migrants” to commemorate the 12th session of the Global Forum on Migration and Development. The campaign sought to amplify the voices of migrants, refugees, and returned Ecuadorians, and highlighted many of the threats and challenges facing migrant and refugee populations around the world, including xenophobia, criminalization, and human trafficking.
As in many countries, Argentina has effectively closed its borders since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, complicating the situation for those seeking regular status or long-term residency. On top of this, the country suspended its online asylum application request system in July, requiring potential asylum seekers to apply in person. Nationals of Mercosur countries including Venezuela are eligible to apply for a temporary resident visa in Argentina, which is valid for up to two years. While there are approximately 174,300 Venezuelans in Argentina, the percentage with regular status is unknown, as the Argentine government’s data on migrants with regular status is not disaggregated by nationality.
Featured organizations: Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Comisión Argentina para Refugiados y Migrantes (CAREF)
- In October 2020, CELS and CAREF published a comprehensive report entitled ‘Laberintos de Papel: Desigualdad y regularización migratoria en América del Sur,’ assessing migratory policies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay and documenting the importance of extending regular status to address the needs of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. WOLA cosponsored a public event exploring the findings of the report, which can be viewed here.
- In August, CAREF produced a report on access to the COVID-19 vaccine for migrants and refugees in Argentina, and how available information regarding eligibility varies by province. Although Argentina’s national vaccination plan is technically available to all regardless of nationality, this report documents inequalities and obstacles in accessing the vaccine for those without a national ID.
- In April 2020, CELS published an analysis documenting access to the Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia (IFE)—Argentina’s pandemic-related economic bonus program—for migrants and refugees living in the country, and urging for flexibility in eligibility requirements to allow Argentina’s migrant and refugee population to receive the IFE.
- In March, a group of organizations including CELS and CAREF presented an assessment to the Inter-American Court on Human rights (IACHR) documenting the situation for migrants and refugees in South America during the COVID-19 pandemic. After receiving this report, the IACHR publicly called on regional governments to cease using the pandemic as a justification to increase the detention and deportation of migrants and refugees without due process.
The Chilean government has also used the COVID-19 pandemic to justify restrictive immigration policies. In recent months, the Chilean government has come under fire for deporting Venezuelan migrants and refugees en masse without due process. Venezuelans who wish to relocate to Chile are eligible to apply for a 1-year Democratic Responsibility Visa (VRD), though the documentation requirements (such as a valid identification and medical certificate) are difficult for many to obtain and applicants must first apply abroad from a Chilean consulate. The Chilean government suspended thousands of applications for the visa at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but recently resumed the process.
Featured organization: Asociación Venezolana en Chile (AsoVen Chile)
The Brazilian government has been praised for its “Operation Welcome” program to receive and regularize Venezuelan migrants, which aims to relocate Venezuelan migrants and refugees from the remote border region to cities in the interior of the country with better economic prospects. However, since 2020 the Bolsonaro government has used pandemic-related health concerns to justify the arbitrary closure of land borders to limit incoming migration from Venezuela, even after air travel to Brazil for tourism and business purposes had resumed. In this time Venezuelans have faced discriminatory restrictions on entry to the country, even when these restrictions did not apply to individuals of other nationalities. These measures have left many Venezuelans with no alternative but to enter the country through informal routes, leaving them unable to access regular status or asylum, and subject to immediate deportation.
Featured organizations: Conectas, Missão Paz
- Conectas and Missão Paz have consistently criticized the ordinances signed by the Brazilian government in early 2020 to close Brazil’s land borders, denouncing and urging international condemnation of the way Brazilian authorities have denied the entry of asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants.
- In March 2020, Conectas joined 10 civil society organizations in criticizing terms of the decree that restrict the ability to seek asylum, permit immediate deportations, and appear to specifically target Venezuelans. In June and August of 2020, Conectas and other human rights organizations reiterated these concerns in a series of letters to the Brazilian authorities, and called for a revision of this policy. Conectas also presented at the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council in July 2021 on the impact of pandemic-related border closures and restrictive migratory policies on the rights of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Brazil.
- In December 2020, Conectas and CEPEDISA (Center for Studies and Research on Health Law) of the Universidade de São Paulo carried out an assessment of government measures to close land borders to migrants and refugees, concluding that the policy is unjustifiable and lacks a scientific basis. The study characterizes the measure as discriminatory and selective, and based in economic rather than humanitarian or sanitary interests.
- In March 2021, Conectas joined over 130 civil society organizations in issuing a joint letter to the Roraima state authorities denouncing a police operation that displaced more than 70 people from a migrant shelter, most of them Venezuelans without regular status. The letter accused the police of using disproportionate force and criminalizing both migrants and those working in the shelter to support them.
- A São Paulo-based organization affiliated with the Scalabrini International Migration Network, Missão Paz has been directly sheltering, offering services to, and advocating for the needs of fleeing Venezuelans in Brazil for years.
- In October 2020, Missão Paz was featured in a report highlighting the work of civil society and human rights organizations in countries throughout South America to provide direct services to migrant and refugee populations, support regularization efforts, and influence policy. The report noted the work that Missão Paz did in 2020 to support food insecure populations, influence Brazil’s congress to expand protections to migrants and refugees during the pandemic, and denounce the militarized response to migrants and refugees along Brazil’s northern border.
The United States
While the United States is the largest donor to the regional response to Venezuelan migrants and refugees, the U.S. government also has an important role to play in guaranteeing protections for Venezuelan nationals at home. In March, the Biden administration designated Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), providing an opportunity for more than 300,000 Venezuelans in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and work authorization. However, like many countries in the hemisphere, the U.S. has effectively closed its borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting greater obstacles for fleeing Venezuelans seeking regular status or asylum. With economies across the region affected by the pandemic, a record number of Venezuelans are making their way to the United States, with border apprehensions of Venezuelan nationals at an all-time high.
Recommendations to governments of the Americas:
- The best way to ensure that Venezuelan migrants and refugees have access to the rights to health, identity, education, and formal employment in their host countries is regularization. Governments throughout the Americas should adopt programs to extend regular status to Venezuelans, and relax documentation and fee requirements to make these programs accessible to all. Governments should also prioritize implementing long-term strategies to regularize Venezuelans, rather than temporary visas that treat the Venezuelan displacement crisis as a short-term issue.
- Cease summary deportations of Venezuelans and other vulnerable populations. Summary deportations are in violation of international human rights law, and are an inhumane response to those fleeing a country in crisis.
- Cease selective and discriminatory border closures that deny the right to migrate and to seek asylum. Countries across the region have used the pandemic as a justification to deny the right to seek asylum and regular status. These policies force those fleeing to seek entry into host countries through informal routes, resulting in a greater number of those without regular status, and leaving migrants and refugees vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
- The only way to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is to ensure that all are able to access the vaccine. Governments in the hemisphere must ensure that national vaccination plans are universal, and that information regarding eligibility for the vaccine is readily available to migrants and refugees regardless of legal migratory status. Countries should also ensure that migrants and refugee populations, which have been disproportionately impacted by economic instability caused by pandemic-related lockdowns, are included in national plans to issue economic support.
- Governments across the Americas should take action to combat disinformation and xenophobic rhetoric by policymakers and government officials that portray Venezuelan migrants and refugees as criminals, or that blame them for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of disinformation is detrimental to the socioeconomic integration of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
- Prioritize regional cooperation between governments to regularize and respond to Venezuelan migrants and refugees. The 76th UN General Assembly (September 14-30) presents an opportunity to discuss the issue through a regional and global lens. The Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis is transnational in nature, and demands a response that is multilateral and coordinated across borders. Governments across the Americas should hold up the commitments made during the Quito Process to coordinate to guarantee human rights protections for fleeing Venezuelans, and should work to hold each other accountable to their international human rights obligations.
- Fully fund, and cooperate with, the joint United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) regional response to fleeing Venezuelans. A robust response to the needs of fleeing Venezuelans will require international support from donor countries. New funding pledges should match not only the urgent needs of the most vulnerable population, but also the need to expand domestic capacities to process asylum cases and broader access to regular migration status.