A Venezuelan is seen entering Colombia at the immigration check point on the Simon Bolívar Bridge in Cucuta. (Juan Torres, NurPhoto via Getty Images)

  • Over a million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, fleeing deep economic and political dysfunction.
  • They have resettled throughout the region, looking for safety and better working conditions.
  • But their movement has burdened neighbouring countries, which are struggling to adjust.

More than 1.5 million Venezuelans have left their country, resettling abroad in a trend that has affected every country in the hemisphere and put increasing pressure on the local communities.

Migration itself is not new — in the early years of the 21st century, Venezuelans of means and skilled workers left the country, many of them dismayed with the government of the late president Hugo Chavez.

But in recent years the outflow has changed in makeup and size. And the protracted economic, political, and social crises that wrack the country have pushed ever more Venezuelans out of their homes.

Between 2014 and 2018, Venezuelans have made 185,783 asylum claims in neighbouring countries, according to a May update released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Another 523,423 have benefited from other forms of protection or alternative legal status.

Some of those who have left the country have been able to stay elsewhere legally, but many others have been unable able to do so and live with heightened risks of exploitation, abuse, and discrimination, according to the UNHCR.

Despite aid from national governments, local communities have struggled to adjust to the migration.


The Colombian border city of Cucuta has been a focal point, with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans passing through in recent months.

"There's just this circus atmosphere," Adam Isacson, director for defence oversight at the Washington Office in Latin America, said after a February visit to the city. "Thousands of people are just milling around, and then there's this long, snaking line going into Migracion Colombia, the immigration station. Then there's a bunch of people just kind of exhausted looking, sitting around with all their luggage."

According to the Colombian government, 819,034 Venezuelans have arrived over the past 16 months — 376,572 have obtained regular status, while 442,462 are in the country without it. Between the total number of Venezuelan arrivals and the 250,000 Colombians who have returned from Venezuela, Colombia has taken in more than a million people over the past 16 months.

Those with regular status include 253,575 Venezuelan families and 118,709 minors, of whom 50,729 are five years old or younger. More than 181,000 of the Venezuelans who have obtained regular status have permission to work in the formal sector, but many more are working off the books and struggling to get by.

"In Cucuta on the border, there are tens of thousands of Venezuelans working in the informal sector, in many cases sleeping in the streets," Geoff Ramsey, associate for Venezuela at WOLA, said in May, after returning from the region.

"The government, every night, comes through with trucks, and security forces round up people in the streets who are believed to be Venezuelans and can't provide identification, and they're shipped off to the border where they cross the next day."

Colombia's government has complicated the situation for Venezuelans, Ramsey said, by requiring documentation for those seeking to cross the border — a difficult hurdle to clear, given the challenges in getting papers from the Venezuelan government. That documentation requirement also means many Venezuelans are shut out of official shelters in Colombia.

Boa Vista

Brazil has also dealt with an influx of Venezuelans. According to the country's federal police, 32,859 Venezuelans have formally applied for asylum there — 96% of those applications have been filed since 2016.

The state of Roraima, on Brazil's border with Venezuela, has borne the brunt. More than 4,000 people are in nine temporary shelters run by the UNHCR in coordination with the Brazilian military, which has led the response to the migration.

But as many as 7,000 people in the state need emergency shelter, and the federal police there are 600 to 700 entries a day.

Interviews done in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, and elsewhere have found that 95% of Venezuelans said they left their country because of a lack of food, while 83% said insecurity, 52% said declining access to food, work, and essential services, and 52% said generalised violence.

Threats also exist in Brazil. The UNHCR said in May that Brazilian officials had recently freed six Venezuelans from a "slave-like situation" in Roraima, and Ramsey, who also visited Boa Vista, said Venezuelan migrants there had been attacked in homes where they were staying.

"There's reports of people lynching Venezuelans that they suspect of committing crimes," Ramsey said.

"That's Brazil. That's in Colombia. That's essentially throughout the region," he said. "There's really alarming reports of xenophobia."

'It's really troublesome'

In 2018, Ecuador has become a more frequent point of transit and settlement for Venezuelans; 343,305 of them have been registered in the country through May 2018 — compared to 287,000 for all of 2017. Ninety percent of those arrivals come overland from Colombia, and they hit record levels in May with 4,500 to 5,000 arrivals a day.

Farther south, Peru is also taking in growing numbers of Venezuelans. More than 300,000 of them have entered the country, according to official reports. Peru has created a temporary visa for Venezuelans to live and work there, and the main immigration office in Lima is now open 24/7 to respond to the influx.

More of them are willing to stay: Departures through Peru's southern border fell from 10,215 in April to 1,960 in May.

Some have stayed in the region but made an arduous trek to Chile, where visas issued to Venezuelans have spiked in recent years — though obtaining legal status in that country is now hindered by the same official requirements Venezuelans face in Colombia.

Venezuelans are also willing to go farther afield: Nearly 30,000 have arrived in Mexico, and those with means have traveled to Spain or to the US, where they've joined a growing expatriate community. Some Venezuelan Jews have elected to go to Israel, though some have had their religious status questioned by the Israeli government.

Despite the regional nature of the crisis, there's been little coordination among the countries there, Ramsey said in May. And while there are signs that could change, Venezuelans on the ground still face hardship.

"Venezuelans who are fleeing their own crisis are dealing with the same kind of discrimination and xenophobia that immigrants face in many countries," Ramsey said, "and it's really troublesome."

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