Venezuela: Refugee Crisis Requires Concerted Regional Response, Says HRW


Governments in the Americas should develop a collective and uniform response to the exodus of people fleeing Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said in a report. They should consider adopting a uniform temporary protection regime to afford security and legal status to Venezuelans seeking protection. Venezuela’s deepening crisis has triggered the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history.

The 33-page report, “The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” documents efforts by South American governments to address the massive numbers of Venezuelans crossing their borders, as well as recent setbacks that threaten Venezuelans’ ability to seek protection. In some Caribbean islands, Venezuelans are subject to arbitrary arrests and deportations. Xenophobic incidents are a growing concern.

“While many governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome fleeing Venezuelans, the growing scale of the crisis requires a uniform, collective response,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should adopt a consistent response to ensure people forced to flee Venezuela get the protection they need to start anew.”

Ecuador’s foreign ministry convoked a regional meeting in Quito for September 3-4 to address Venezuelan emigration, and the Organization of American States Permanent Council will hold another meeting on this topic on September 5.

Human Rights Watch recommends that governments in the Americas consider adopting:

  • A region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans legal status, including work authorization and suspension of deportation, for a fixed but renewable period, at least pending adjudication of their individual claims for protection;
  • A regional mechanism to equitably share responsibilities and costs associated with the migration flows, including safe, orderly, and voluntary transfers of refugees and asylum seekers among host countries according to their capacity to receive, process, and integrate them; and
  • Strong multilateral strategies to address the root causes that lead so many Venezuelans to flee their country, including adopting and enforcing targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and cancelling visas against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights abuses, and pushing for justice for human rights violations.

In July and August 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted research missions to Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, where we interviewed United Nations and government officials and dozens of Venezuelans who had crossed the border. The report is also based on a thorough review of government and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publications and additional interviews with Venezuelans who have recently fled to other South American countries and the Caribbean, as well as lawyers, experts, and activists.

Over 2.3 million Venezuelans out of an estimated 32 million total population have left their country since 2014, according to the UN. However, many more whose cases will not have been registered by authorities have left.

The political, economic, human rights, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela creates a mix of factors that causes Venezuelans to leave and makes them unable or unwilling to return. Some fleeing will qualify for refugee status; others may not qualify but need protection.

Refugees may not be forcibly returned to their countries of origin if they face a well-founded fear of persecution under the principle of nonrefoulement in international law. Under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, 15 regional governments have adopted a broader definition of refugee that obliges them to offer protection to people fleeing “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

Some South American governments, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, have adopted special rules to provide Venezuelans legal permits to stay. Argentina and Uruguay allow Venezuelans to apply for a special visa for nationals of the regional trade bloc Mercosur, even though Venezuela was expelled from the bloc in December 2016. Venezuelans in Ecuador can apply for a UNASUR visa to stay.

These permits have provided legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, helping them establish themselves abroad, work, and gain access to basic services. Yet some Venezuelans have reported difficulties in getting them, and recently some governments have made it harder for Venezuelans to apply for legal status.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation, which severely undermines their ability to obtain a work permit, send their children to school, and access health care. This makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, and less likely to report abuses to competent authorities.

In the Caribbean, where several governments have close economic and political ties to the Venezuelan government, no country has adopted a special permit for Venezuelans to legally stay and most do not have laws to regulate the asylum-seeking process. Some Venezuelans with UNHCR-issued documents have been detained or deported to Venezuela. Venezuelans seeking refuge in Caribbean countries and Northern Brazil have also faced xenophobic harassment.

Venezuelans are the leading nationality requesting asylum in the United States and Spain, with only a small percentage receiving it.

“Venezuela opened its doors to people fleeing South America’s dictatorships and internal conflicts in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Vivanco. “Its neighbors now have the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for the Venezuelan people, and governments meeting in Quito this week to discuss the Venezuelan exodus should stand up to the task.”

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