CARACAS -- At 9 a.m. the line in front of the Irish Consulate finally starts to move. Bleary-eyed and drowsy, dozens of youth perk up after a night spent sleeping on surrounding streets.
Oddly enough, the camped-out crowd is not trying to get into a concert or a sports playoff game. Rather, they were waiting for a ticket out of Venezuela.
For weeks now, hundreds have been lining up outside the Irish Consulate — in some instances for days — in an attempt to process papers to study abroad.
“It’s a way to move forward,” said Alexi Correa, 24, a maritime engineering student who had spent 12 hours waiting for the doors to open. “It’s a way to ‘trampoline’ yourself abroad.”
Despite being mired in an economic crisis of its own, Ireland doesn’t require Venezuelans to obtain a visa and allows them to work while studying. The policy is serving as a potential lifeline for those who are trying to escape soaring crime and an economy in tatters. And it’s not just Ireland: Officials are reporting a flood of applications to other countries as well.
“If you look at how we are living, you realize you can make it anywhere,” said Daniela Patterson, 22, a university student waiting in line. For Patterson, the task of trying to make ends meet in Venezuela has simply become “impossible.”
The South American nation is simultaneously grappling with one of the world’s highest inflation rates and one of the highest murder rates. Last year, prices rose 56 percent, and the country recorded nearly 25,000 murders.
Increasingly pessimistic about their country’s future, many here have had enough.
A website that helps Latinos emigrate, called mequieroir.com (“I want to leave”), reported record traffic over the past month. The website’s founder, Esther Bermudéz, 43, a Venezuelan now living in Montreal, says the number of daily page views has more than doubled, at times reaching 200,000 per day. Users are primarily Venezuelan.
Bermudéz says that over the past 13 years the site has seen its share of surges in traffic — often after elections with whose outcome voters are dissatisfied. But she said this traffic is the highest the site has ever seen.
“There is a true, visceral desire to leave the country,” she said.
Bermudéz points out that unlike past spikes in the site’s popularity — where page views tended to ebb when the political waters calmed in Venezuela — the flow has remained constant since mid-January.
“Leaving your country is not a decision you make overnight,” Bermudéz said. “I think we’re looking at a new wave of emigration.”
Dr. Anitza Freitez, 54, a professor of demography at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, isn’t surprised by the recent eagerness to leave Venezuela, given the worsening state of affairs in the country.
This past month saw the highly publicized murder of Venezuelan beauty queen and actress Monica Spear, as well as a partial devaluation of Venezuela’s bolívar, which could potentially push prices even higher.
“There’s a level of public discontent that has been accumulating, that with just a spark it can provoke a massive response,” Freitez said.
While the government has not released migration statistics since 1996, a 2011 study titled “Emigration from Venezuela in the Last Decade” found that more than 530,000 Venezuelans have left the country since 2000. ( MeQuieroIr.com estimates the number to be as many as a million, counting those who have either temporary or illegal status.)
In both measures, emigrants have been predominantly young, university-educated, middle-class professionals who cite personal security and economic uncertainty as their primary reasons for moving abroad.
“The aspirations of a recently graduated high-schooler are very difficult to achieve in Venezuela,” Freitez said. “We’re speaking about basic goods: a car to get around, an apartment — those are two basic [items] that are not easily obtained by a professional in Venezuela.”
Salaries for a resident doctor are often just a bit above minimum wage, which is 3,200 bolivares a month, or $500 at the official exchange rate. A full-time professor makes about twice that amount. Such incomes make it a stretch to rent a room in Caracas, let alone save for a car.
Gripes like these were prevalent at a crowded emigration seminar last week in central Venezuela.
Scores of students and professionals packed into a shopping mall auditorium in Valencia where the law firm Rochon Genova showcased the benefits of living in Canada (and how they far outweighed the hassle of often-miserable weather). The firm was also offering its services to streamline the migration process.
“It just keeps getting harder and harder to get by; the money is never enough,” said Juan Carlos Simmons, 32, a telecommunications engineer. He, like many at the seminar, said it was the first time he felt the need to leave.
The seminar’s host, who asked that her name not be used, said she was taken aback by the sudden outpouring of interest.
“Last time, we didn’t even fill the auditorium,” but now just three months after her last presentation, attendees had more than doubled to nearly 200 and she found herself suddenly turning people away.
“I don’t know how I’m going to fit them all in,” she worried, as she was already receiving hundreds of emails daily to register for upcoming events in the Caracas and the coastal city of Puerto la Cruz.
Many young Venezuelans said leaving is a last resort. Simmons, for example, said he had held on to hope for a decade thinking things would change. Now, he’s less optimistic.
“It’s still possible things can get better,” he said. “But I’m tired of waiting.”