During the fifth meeting of the Quito Process in Bogotá on November 14 and 15, regional civil society organizations will be monitoring the progress of participating countries in developing a coordinated regional strategy for long-term regularization of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Since 2015, 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country, the largest mass displacement in Latin America’s recent history.
The Quito Process began in September 2018 when eleven receiving countries met in Quito, Ecuador to share information and work towards a common approach. They met again in November 2018, and April, and July of this year. However, they have yet to develop a comprehensive plan to offer protections for Venezuelans. Participating countries have opted instead for limited and temporary policies.
A Patchwork of Responses
With an estimated 5,000 people leaving Venezuela each day, countries in the region have struggled to cope with incoming waves of migrants and the implications for their already strained health and education systems. The situation is getting ever more urgent. As Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency deepens, the demographics of those fleeing has changed substantially, with the most vulnerable among the Venezuelan population—impoverished women and families, ill, elderly, and disabled persons—now fleeing to neighboring countries.
The largest recipient of migrants and refugees has been Colombia, with an estimated 1.5 million displaced Venezuelans within its territory, followed by Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. To address the situation, recipient countries have established new intake systems to address rising numbers of incoming migrants and refugees. For example, Colombia offered the Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP), and Peru provided a similar Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP). These passes, which typically expire after 1-2 years, provide Venezuelans with temporary access to education, health care, and employment.
In 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) commended these efforts, stating that expedited processes for temporary regularization honor “the right to migrate” and “the principle of equality and nondiscrimination.” However, access to temporary status has been irregular since its conception, and the Colombian government actually stopped distributing PEP passes altogether in December 2018, without providing an alternative. This means there is no path to regularization for Venezuelans who have arrived in Colombia since then, leaving at least 400,000 without the opportunity to obtain formal status of any kind.
What is more, these policies are inherently temporary. While passes are generally renewable after expiration, they work with an assumption that the driving factor behind the displacement is a temporary one that can be resolved in a matter of 1-2 years. Unfortunately, even if there were a democratic transition tomorrow, it would likely be years until migration stopped. As well, a recent study by UNHCR suggests that only 19% of Venezuelans actually intend to return to Venezuela.
For many recipient governments, the challenge is rooted in limited institutional and administrative capacity of countries that have never hosted large numbers of immigrants. Policy-makers claim that temporary passes are easier and quicker to process than asylum requests, and therefore put less of a strain on their administrative capacities.
However, even under expedited processes, countries are still struggling to keep up with the demand brought by recent waves of migration. Out of all Venezuelans who have fled since 2015, less than half have received formal status in any form. Even still, rather than expand their efforts, several recipient countries have attempted to curb migration altogether by establishing limitations on border entry or access to temporary visas. These policies increase the likelihood that migrants persist in irregular status, and can exacerbate xenophobia among the local population.
What is more, studies by organizations like Refugees International show that these policies do not curb migration, but only incentivize migration through informal entry points, increasing their exposure to illicit activities such as human trafficking.
The Elephant in the Room: Refugee Status
Most countries around the world base their legal frameworks on the text of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee primarily by exposure to persecution within one’s home country. However, in June of this year, the OAS Working Group on Venezuelan Migrants publicly urged countries to consider as refugees all Venezuelans who meet the qualifications outlined in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration.
The Cartagena Declaration provides a much broader definition of refugees, as those who have fled their country due to threats caused by “generalized violence, foreign aggression, international massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” In May the UNHCR suggested that the majority of Venezuelan migrants meet these criteria.
Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile are all signatories of the Cartagena Declaration. What is more, in 2018, they also participated in a request that the International Criminal Court open an investigation into the Maduro government for committing large-scale human rights violations and crimes against humanity. This expanded understanding of what constitutes a refugee, combined with such open recognition of the human rights situation in Venezuela, is inconsistent with these same countries refusal to recognize incoming Venezuelans as refugees in practice.
Of course, giving Venezuela migrants refugee status would require these governments to dedicate significant resources towards guaranteeing permanent protection and access to necessary services as well as serious efforts to integrate refugees into new communities and the labor market.
One cause of the region’s struggle to respond to the displacement crisis is inadequate international funding. The UNHCR’s Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RRMR) was slow to gain support when it was launched last year, leaving Venezuela’s neighboring countries to address the situation with their own resources. However, the RRMR has seen a surge in funding in recent months, with 52% of the request obtained, approximately three quarters of which has come from the U.S. government.
The majority of the funding request is allocated to emergency humanitarian assistance. Only 9.2% is designated for institutional capacity building, which would provide the training and technical assistance necessary to improve the efficiency of the government’s migrant and refugee intake systems. A more comprehensive response would reserve more funds to administrative capacity building among recipient governments, which would allow for the development of a more robust, long-term response to the needs of incoming Venezuelans.
The Quito Process emerged last year as a response to the clear need for multilateral cooperation to provide an adequate response to the forced migration crisis. While each country has its own unique domestic challenges to consider, participating countries will need to develop a mutually agreed-upon set of minimum standards for long-term access to basic services, labor markets, and regular status if they are to properly address the needs of fleeing Venezuelans in compliance with the obligations of the Cartagena Declaration.