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As most countries across the hemisphere prioritize national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, little attention has been paid to the needs of the world’s refugee and migrant populations. This is particularly true for the more than 5 million Venezuelans who have fled to neighboring countries since 2015, the majority of whom are without regular status in their host countries.
The top host countries for Venezuelans in Latin America, most of which made bold commitments to broaden access to formal status in the 2018 Quito Declaration, have begun to look inwards as the crisis drags on. While last year began with signs of interest in regional coordination on issues like a proposed regional work permit, such progress has slowed. The proposal was watered down over the course of 2019, and the end result was a paper vaccination tracking sheet announced in October. So far in 2020, as priorities have shifted to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, there are few signs that the region is looking to follow up on its past commitments.
On March 16, the UN Refugee Agency published a series of recommendations for states to follow with regard to their refugee populations amid the coronavirus outbreak, urging leaders to honor the right to seek asylum and protection from refoulement as they implement policies to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, health care systems in neighboring countries were already under strain due to the influx of migrants and refugees from Venezuela. As regional leaders navigate their limited public health systems to treat affected patients, advocacy groups like the Bogota-based Dejusticia have raised concerns about the need to ensure equal access to health services among citizens and migrants.
The largest factor that makes Venezuelan refugees particularly vulnerable is the fact that the vast majority of Venezuelans living abroad do not have regular legal status in their host countries, meaning that they have limited access to formal employment, reliable shelter, or public health services. For example, in both Colombia and Mexico, Venezuelans without regular status can only access emergency health services, meaning that they may not be tested or treated for the coronavirus until it is already too late.
These circumstances are expected to worsen in the coming months as countries across the hemisphere uphold restrictions on international travel. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have closed borders and suspended flights. These border closures will not stop incoming migration, but will only incentivize migrants to cross the border through informal routes, putting them at risk of exploitation or human trafficking. For instance, Colombia’s overnight decision to close its border on March 13 has only led to more irregular border crossings. In addition to adding to these risks, such border closures can be counterproductive to countries’ COVID-19 containment strategies, as those crossing informally will not be subject to testing, leaving governments unable to effectively track the spread of the virus.
Another reality is that most Venezuelan migrants and refugees do not have the option of working from home. As countries throughout the region enact curfews and shelter-in-place measures, this leaves those who work in the informal sector—which surveys suggest make up 75% of Venezuelans in Colombia, and 90% in Peru—without any source of income. Even in countries such as Peru where governments are providing cash handouts to its residents, Venezuelan migrants are not included in these measures. Instead the Peruvian government has said the “international community” will finance smaller-scale support targeting vulnerable migrant communities, though it has offered few details.
While leaders across the region have incorporated the need for assistance to Venezuelans into their public rhetoric, they have not offered a more comprehensive plan to incorporate Venezuelan migrants into stimulus packages or other mitigation efforts. To date, any efforts to support these countries’ migrant populations during the COVID-19 outbreak have largely come from NGOs and the international community, and even these initiatives fall short of providing the financial assistance needed for the millions of Venezuelans living abroad.
Of particular concern are vulnerable Venezuelans who are living either on the street or in crowded shelters, who likely do not have the luxury to practice physical distancing or wash their hands regularly. The lack of access to proper sanitation or running water leaves these individuals at a heightened risk for contracting and spreading the virus. In some cases, governments are restricting or closing migrant shelters, which will have consequences for those most in need. Some municipal authorities in Colombia, for instance, have closed shelters—and in the process fueled tensions between residents and displaced migrants. The Colombian government has also instructed NGOs operating at the Venezuelan border to cut their activity by half, further limiting the resources available to Venezuelan migrants in the country.
In the face of such adverse conditions, some have decided to return to Venezuela as their livelihoods have dried up abroad. Thousands have already made the trek back to Venezuela since mid-March, and the Maduro government claims that approximately 500 more are returning each day. Officials in Colombia have opened a humanitarian corridor and arranged buses to facilitate travel back to Venezuela, while those who cannot afford to pay the fare are left to travel by foot.
Upon returning, Venezuelans are finding a dire welcome. Venezuelan security forces have begun operating 14-day quarantine camps for returned migrants in border areas, which reports suggest lack running water, sufficient food, or basic standards of hygiene. The changing demographic makeup of Venezuelan migrants and the deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground in Venezuela are also important aggravating factors. At the onset of Venezuela’s displacement crisis, the majority of those who fled were young, middle-class men. Over the years, as the humanitarian situation progressed, increasing desperation led to an increase of women, families, and those of a lower socioeconomic status fleeing to other countries. Now, as hospitals in Venezuela struggle to meet the needs of those affected by the virus, more who are elderly or have underlying medical conditions—the exact groups that are most susceptible to catching COVID-19—are seeking help in other countries. This trend will only intensify as Venezuelan hospitals are unable to meet the needs of affected patients.
In early March, the UNHCR expressed its concern for the safety of migrants and refugees around the world and launched a $33 million appeal to protect displaced people from the coronavirus. International support may not be swift, however. The joint UNHCR-IOM appeal for 2020 has so far received just three percent of the funds needed for a regional response to the Venezuela crisis.
Increasing funding to refugee responses around the world is essential, but will not be enough on its own. Without regular status in host countries, Venezuelans living abroad are put in a position of particular vulnerability and instability without access to much-needed resources or public health services. As WOLA and regional partners have noted, a humanitarian response to fleeing Venezuelans must include broader access to regular status. And in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, a comprehensive regional response to the needs of Venezuelan migrants is needed more than ever.