UN refugee chief: Venezuelan exodus “not going to stop” soon

Venezuelans cross Colombian border in search of food and medicine

Venezuelans are fleeing their country to find food and medicines no longer available to them at home, as seen in this footage released by the World Food Programme on September 24. The UN said nearly half a million people fled to Ecuador in 2018.
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Venezuelans are fleeing their country to find food and medicines no longer available to them at home, as seen in this footage released by the World Food Programme on September 24. The UN said nearly half a million people fled to Ecuador in 2018.

The region needs to brace it itself for the arrival of even more Venezuelan migrants, as there are few signs that the exodus will end anytime soon, the head of the United Nations refugee agency said.

Speaking to reporters in Lima Thursday, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said the international community needs to help countries like Colombia and Perú that are absorbing the brunt of the new arrivals.

“Clearly, I think governments in the region and we, the humanitarian community, must step up our preparation for more [migrants]; this is not going to stop anytime soon,” he said of the Venezuelan crisis. “Unfortunately it’s not going to stop.”

More than 2 million Venezuelans are thought to have left the country in recent years — one of the largest mass migrations in the Western Hemisphere. Grandi said the only comparable migrant flows were from war-torn Central American nations in the 1980s.

“This is for sure the largest movement of people out of a country that we have seen in a long time — as far as we can remember,” he said. “But it’s also unusual in that there is no war in Venezuela, so this is not the same type of crisis that we saw 30 years ago.”

“We are all adapting to respond to something that is fairly new and fairly complex, but very serious,” he added.

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Venezuela’s grinding economic and political crises have rattled the region. Once one of the hemisphere’s wealthiest nations, Venezuela’s oil-based economy has collapsed amid corruption, mismanagement and international sanctions. Food and medicine shortages sweep through the nation of 32 million, and the International Monetary Fund expects inflation will hit 10 million percent in 2019.

Grandi said he visited a soup kitchen in Cúcuta, Colombia — on the border with Venezuela — where he met people who were counting on the free meal to survive.

“There were people that were coming from Venezuela to have one meal, to eat and go back,” he said. “This I have not seen in other places. It really struck me.”

Venezuela accuses its neighbors of exaggerating the migratory crisis as part of a larger plot to topple the socialist administration of President Nicolás Maduro. But Grandi said Venezuelan officials have privately acknowledged that their citizens have “needs that need to be met.”

For decades, Venezuela was a net receiver of migrants. As civil strife and guerrilla warfare rocked Perú and Colombia, many fled to oil-rich Venezuela. And for the most part, South America is repaying that debt. Colombia and Perú — the top two destinations for Venezuelans — have offered temporary work and residency permits to hundreds of thousands.

Grandi said he was impressed by the region’s solidarity, but he worried about the economic costs.

“How long can this last? Resources are limited,” he said. “There is an urgent need to mobilize international assistance.”

The United States has pledged more than $100 million to aid Venezuela’s neighbors. But Washington has also ratcheted up financial sanctions on the country, which critics say have accelerated Venezuela’s economic collapse and are exacerbating the crisis.

As thousands of people leave the country daily — many of them on foot and impoverished — Venezuela’s neighbors have avoided creating the camps seen in other humanitarian crises. Grandi said that UNHCR approved of the region’s approach.

“Our advice, not just here but in any situation, is don’t set up a camp,” he said. “They seem nice in the beginning but then how do you pay for them? It’s not a good model.”

The Peruvian and Colombian strategy of trying to integrate the Venezuelans into the community is much more effective, he said. “But then you have to help the community. This is where we cannot count on Peruvian resources or Colombian resources — we need to help them take this responsibility.”

Grandi is visiting Argentina, Colombia, Perú and Ecuador on this trip, and one of his goals is to encourage a regional approach to the crisis. Many of the affected nations have already held meetings to come up with common strategies, but Grandi said a multinational forum in the region would help the flow of international aid.

Global support is also key to keeping countries from being overwhelmed and taming xenophobic impulses. Colombia, Perú, Brazil and others have seen sporadic outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan sentiment.

“People are very nice, but people also get frustrated,” Grandi said. “The best antidote against xenophobia is to show that there is international help, so people don’t feel alone with the problem.”