While most of the 5 million Venezuelans who have left the country in recent years face serious challenges abroad, displaced women and girls are at a disproportionately high risk of violence and exploitation. As the crisis has deepened, the demographics of Venezuelan migrants and refugees has shifted, with more women and families of a lower socioeconomic status leaving. These women not only have greater difficulty finding formal employment in their host countries, but also face a heightened threat of sex trafficking, sexual slavery, and other forms of exploitation by criminal groups.
The risk is particularly high for those who migrate to Colombia through informal entry points, many of which are controlled by illegal armed groups. While some are recruited at the border, others are lured abroad by false promises of lucrative employment opportunities. As a result, the border city of Cúcuta has become a hotspot of recruitment into sex and human trafficking networks.
While several countries including Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, imposed stricter visa requirements in 2019 to limit the influx of Venezuelan migrants, in practice these restrictions incentivize migrants to use informal routes, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. The same is true for the travel restrictions put in place throughout the region in March to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The threat continues for women and girls who do not have regular status in their host countries, which is the case for over half of all Venezuelan migrants. A lack of regular status prevents access to services such as health care or education, as well as employment in the formal sector. Most of Venezuela’s migrant women only have experience in domestic work or low-income occupations and need to recur to exploitative work in the informal market, including prostitution, to survive financially. Those who do not have regular status are also less likely to report cases of violence or sexual exploitation to host governments out of fear of retribution or deportation.
Xenophobia is an additional threat and is particularly significant in regions with higher instances of human trafficking. While all migrants have been exposed to instances of xenophobia throughout the region, Venezuelan women are frequent targets. This is in part due to the overt sexualization of Venezuela’s displacement crisis, which Maria Corina Muskus of Venezolanas Globales attributes to “the vision of Venezuela as the country of beautiful women.”
Sex work and sex trafficking, sexualization and xenophobia have all contributed to gender-based harassment and violence. In Colombia alone, 57.3% of all reported deaths of Venezuelan women between 2018 and 2019 were categorized as femicides, and at least 6.6% directly linked to xenophobic intentions.