By Larissa Peltola, a staff writer for RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

The political and economic crises which have plagued Venezuela since 2014 have resulted in the mass exodus of over 5 million Venezuelans, the largest migrant crisis in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Of the over 5 million people that have fled their home country of Venezuela, over 1.6 million have settled in neighboring Colombia, resulting in a refugee crisis made increasingly worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Milena Gomez Kopp, Visiting Research Scholar at School of International and Public Affairs, engaged with students during the October 28, 2020, Food for Thought speaker series and discussed her analysis of the growing refugee crisis.

Background 

Venezuela was once considered the wealthiest and most resource-rich country in Latin America. With the largest oil reserve in the world, the economy grew rapidly, and Western countries looked for ways to engage in trade with Venezuela. This changed with the rise of former President Hugo Chavez, who cut off the country to the rest of the world. The Chavez era was marked by the widespread emigration of what Professor Kopp explains as the “executive immigrants,” the highly educated and trained, land-owning, and upper class Venezuelans who fled their country, mainly to Colombia and the United States, for fear of economic insecurity and political repression.

Matters were made worse by the death of Hugo Chavez and the 2013 succession of the current contested President Nicolas Maduro. His presidency has been marred by controversy, bloodshed, political persecution of opposition leaders, suppression of the free press, state-sponsored human rights violations and crimes against humanity, and an overwhelming exodus of Venezuelans who can no longer find food, medicine, and other basic necessities in their home country.  

“No es vivir, es sobrevivir” /  “It’s not living, it’s surviving” 

As the situation deteriorated in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, poor and desperate Venezuelans poured into Colombia seeking asylum and refuge. According to Dr. Kopp, the number of migrants grew from 140,000 in 2015 to over 1.6 million in 2019 alone. The dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in Colombia has overwhelmed Colombia’s capacity to settle them.

Making matters worse, in 2015 President Maduro closed the Venezuelan/Colombia border, effectively separating families, preventing the flow of resources into Venezuela, and labeling any Venezuelans who fled to Colombia as traitors, many of whom could be jailed, tortured, or killed upon return to their home country.  

The Impact of COVID- 19 

Colombia, like many countries around the world, faces an urgent crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. Migration from Venezuela only increased in 2020 as political repression and violence intensified under the Maduro regime. Despite receiving aid from international organizations like the UNHCR, fiscal restraints drastically limit the Colombian government’s capacity to administer necessary public services to the rapidly increasing migrant population. Beyond this, Dr. Kopp explained, this refugee crisis has only garnered a fraction of the attention of other refugee crises such as those happening in Syria and Myanmar. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), Syrian refugees have received an estimated $33 billion in donations, South Sudan, $9.4 billion, and Myanmar which received roughly $1.2 billion. Comparatively, international donations for Venezuelan refugees total $600 million. 

COVID-19 has put Venezuelan migrants in Colombia in even more dire straits as a majority have lost their jobs due to government lockdowns in order to prevent further spread of the virus. Because many of the migrants in Colombia are low-skilled and held jobs in the construction sector, the service industry, and in domestic work, the lockdown triggered a drastic wave of unemployment in the country. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia, since the pandemic economic activity in the country shrank to just 15.7% and unemployment reached 21%. Furthermore, poverty levels are expected to rise and in addition to the lack of access to health services and forced evictions, many Venezuelan refugees are facing urgent and life-threatening situations in the country where they sought safety and refuge. 

Due to the lack of community support and work opportunities in Colombia, over 100,000 Venezuelans were forced to return home to confront the poverty, hunger, violence and repression they had fled, only to now also deal with high COVID infection rates.  

What Does the Future Hold? 

It may be difficult to feel much optimism with the current economic, health, and political crises plaguing much of the Americas. COVID is far from over, meaning that continued migration from Venezuela to Colombia will continue to rise and will eventually stabilize. The refugee crisis, however, will continue long after the end of the pandemic. According to the OAS, the total number of Venezuelan emigrants could reach up to 7.5 million which will further pose a great challenge for the international community.

Despite increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers pouring into other countries in Latin America and into the US, little action is being taken, especially when compared to the plight of other international refugees. According to Dr. Kopp, geographical location and political contexts play a large role in the lack of attention and inaction: “Europeans fear the presence of millions of refugees at their doorstep and, for this reason, the European Union have actively supported the plight of Syrian refugees by outsourcing their problem to Turkey, for example, in exchange for billions of dollars.” This is not the case with Venezuela, argues Dr. Kopp, “The United States has pledged millions, not billions of dollars because desperate Venezuelans refugees are not a priority in the country’s foreign policy objectives.” Instead, the Trump administration is fixated on defeating President Maduro and the drug trade in the region. “Low-income migrants,” she explains, “are no threat as they are too poor to attempt to cross the Darien [gap] in order to arrive to the US/Mexican border.”

Until there is a change in regimes in Venezuela, and  native Venezuelans feel safe enough to return home, the only solution to this growing problem is to provide the necessary funds to support refugees and take some of the burden off of Colombia and other countries that have resettled Venezuelan migrants.  

Food for Thought is a speaker series that welcomes a distinguished lineup of EMPA Faculty approaching the Covid-19 crisis and social justice reform. Each week a speaker will present their recommendation paper, highlight their perspective on the crisis, and engage in a dialogue with EMPA students, alumni, and other faculty members.

Milena Gomez Kopp was previously Chargé d’ Affairs/ Minister Plenipotentiary at the Embassy of Colombia in Turkey. She has taught at SIPA, the Universidad Externado de Colombia, the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara and the Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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