Andres Oppenheimer

The Venezuelan exodus has reached 4 million people. Is that just the beginning?


The Venezuelan crisis may have vanished from the headlines in recent weeks, but new United Nations figures suggest that millions more Venezuelans will flee their country. That will mean massive new waves of Venezuelan refugees to other Latin American countries and the United States.

According to United Nations Human Rights Council, the number of Venezuelans who have fled their country since 2014 has reached 4 million.

That includes 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have settled in Colombia, 770,000 in Peru, 288,000 in Chile, 263,000 in Ecuador, 130,000 in Argentina, 168,000 in Brazil, and 94,000 in Panama.

The total number of Venezuelan migrants in the United States is unclear - some independent groups estimate it at 300,000 - but the number of asylum seekers is 82,000, the UNHRC says. In sharp contrast with Colombia and other countries, the Trump administration has so far refused to grant Venezuelan asylum seekers a Temporary Protection Status, or TPS.

Earlier this week, I called Colombia’s Director of Migration, Christian Kruger,

to ask him whether he thinks that the Venezuelan exodus will keep growing. Since the bulk of Venezuelan refugees flee their country through the Colombian border, few know more about the Venezuelan exodus than Kruger.

Kruger told me that he has little doubt that the number of Venezuelan refugees will keep rising, because of what he described as “dictator (Nicolás) Maduro’s population expulsion strategy.” Maduro wants fewer mouths to feed in order to be able to cope with his country’s economic collapse, he said.

Venezuela’s inflation rate is projected to reach an annual rate of 10 million percent this year, by far the highest in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. The economy has shrunk by more than fifty percent over the past five years, and there are widespread food and medicine shortages.

According to Krueger, if current trends continue, the number of Venezuelans in Colombia alone is likely to jump from the current 1.3 million to up to 2 million by the end of this year. An estimated 5,000 Venezuelans a day are crossing the Colombian border by land, of which half remain in Colombia and the remainder continue their journey to Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Chile and other countries, he said.

As time goes by and Venezuelan refugees find it harder to find jobs in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, they are increasingly moving to farther away countries. “The flow is heading mainly by land toward the south of continent,” Kruger said.

Colombia is paying an exorbitant price for its welcome to Venezuelan refugees. So far, only about 20 percent of the money that international donor countries agreed to give Colombia has been disbursed, Kruger told me. Meantime, Colombia’s school and hospital expenses for Venezuelan refugees are skyrocketing.

While in 2015 Colombia paid for 1,400 hospital emergency admissions for Venezuelan refugees, that number soared to 132,000 last year, Kruger said. “This has become a very challenging health emergency for us,” he said.

Kruger refused to tell me which countries are not doing their job to help Venezuelan refugees, but several officials from Colombia and other Latin American countries pointed specifically at the United States and Mexico as being far less generous than other countries.

The Trump Administration has not only refused to grant TPS for Venezuelans - although Trump said this week that he is considering it, under pressure from Democrats in Congress - but has also deported at least 330 Venezuelans last year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency figures.

And Mexico, despite its claims of strongly defending immigrant rights, turned 776 Venezuelans back to Colombia over the past two years, including more than 160 so far this year, according to Colombian officials. That does not include the number of people deported by Mexico back to Venezuela.

My opinion: If the Trump administration and Latin American leaders believe the current political lull in Venezuela will allow them to put the Venezuelan crisis on the backburner, they are fooling themselves. The Venezuelan exodus will make it hard for them to ignore the Venezuelan tragedy.

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