As Venezuelan refugees flee their country, the world turns its back, OAS report finds

As many as 8 million Venezuelans are expected to have fled their country by the end of 2020, far surpassing the Syrian refugee crisis, according to projections released by the Organization of American States on Friday.

The new figures are higher than what OAS officials were predicting just last week and represent a serious challenge for a region that’s already seeing anemic economic growth.

The report also found that the international community isn’t responding to the Venezuelan crisis as it has to problems in other parts of the world.

While the global community has provided $33 billion in aid to Syria’s 6.7 million refugees, it has only given $300 million to Venezuela’s 4 million migrants and refugees, said Dany Bahar, a Brookings Institute researcher who worked on the OAS report.

That’s the equivalent of $5,000 for each Syrian refugee and less than $100 for each Venezuelan migrant.

“The international community has to listen to the voice of the region,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in reaction to the study. “This report illustrates not only how slow the [international] response has been, but also the lack of generosity.”

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Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants, with 1.3 million. It’s followed by Peru (850,000), Chile (288,000) and Ecuador (283,000). The four countries account for about 67.5 percent of all Venezuelan migrants — and all the nations have said that the influx is straining their social services.

The OAS numbers are among the largest predictions that have been made about the Venezuelan crisis. The United Nations has estimated there might be 5.4 million Venezuelans living abroad at the end of this year.

Last week, David Smolansky, the head of the working group that produced the report, told the Miami Herald that researchers estimated that more than 6 million Venezuelans would be living abroad by 2020.

Venezuelans are currently leaving at a rate of 5,000 per day. In order to hit the 8 million mark — the upper end of the OAS projection — the outflow would have to jump to more than 7,300 people per day on average.

Smolansky acknowledged that it was just a prediction, but one solidly based on the country’s falling oil output, hyperinflation and the specter of worsening food and medicine shortages.

The Venezuelan regime has claimed that the U.N. figures and other migration estimates are exaggerated — politicized to paint the nation in the worst possible light. But it hasn’t provided figures of its own.

Among the report’s key recommendations are that the region grant Venezuelan migrants refugee status under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, automatically giving them all the rights of any other foreigner with legal status.

It also recommends the issuing of regional ID cards that would allow Venezuelans — many of them unable to get passports or national identification cards — to travel freely throughout the region.

Bahar said that such documents would not only help the migrants, but help the countries absorbing them, by allowing Venezuelans to become an integrated part of the workforce. But for the plan to work, the entire region needs to take the leap at the same time.

Currently, Venezuelan migrants are following a path of least resistance, attracted to markets in Colombia, Peru and Chile, where it has been easier to get work permits.

Peru and Chile, however, recently began requiring Venezuelans to apply for visas, a step that threatens to create a backlog of migrants in neighboring countries.

Smolansky said the study found five main reasons Venezuelans are leaving: the humanitarian crisis, including lack of medicine and food, generalized violence, the violation of human rights, the collapse of public services and the economic crisis.

“People aren’t leaving for economic reasons or voluntarily,” he said. “This is forced migration. ... How desperate does a mother have to be to carry her child in her arms for thousands of miles?”

Venezuelan migration has largely been a regional issue, impacting Venezuela’s South American neighbors hardest. But that’s starting to change. Venezuelans now represent the biggest number of asylum seekers in the United States and Spain. And Venezuelans are second only to Syrians in applying for asylum in the European Union.

The report — based on months of research and hundreds of interviews in the region — has been one of the few moments of consensus at this year’s OAS General Assembly.

On Thursday, the Uruguayan delegation walked out of the session to protest that representatives from Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó were being given a seat at the table. Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro — who still occupies the presidential palace and controls most of the levers of power — had pulled the country out of the hemispheric organization.

OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro used the report to underscore the need for Maduro to step down and make way for new elections.

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that this exodus has only one cause, and that’s the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro,” he said. “The only solution for Venezuelan migrants is the end of the dictatorship.”