Venezuelan Refugees Left Stranded

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 15

Since the beginning of COVID-19 in the region, Venezuelan refugees are usually mentioned among the worst affected groups in every single country where they are currently located: Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated the already precarious situation for this particular group. Tenuous legal status, limited job opportunities, propensity to work in informal economies and/or sectors, lack of political attention and increasing discrimination are among the issues which COVID-19 has aggravated in all host countries which are also experiencing dramatic socio-economic upheavals and alarming infected/death rates. 

The unsustainable and perilous situation has forced Venezuelan refugees to reckon with the possibility of returning to their home country. However, returning to Venezuela has proved to be a more dangerous antidote. The Simon Bolivar International bridge between Colombia and Venezuela is limited to only 300 people, 3 days a week or at times 1200 people per week and Venezuela’s President Maduro is limiting entry to only 400 Venezuelan citizens per day. The Organization of American States (OAS) has also reported that Venezuela’s president and national authorities have accused returning refugees and migrants of “bioterrorism” and they have stigmatized their reintegration to an already fragile situation in the country. 

In this brief report, I will focus on the current situation of Venezuelan refugees amid the pandemic in the following neighboring countries: border closures in Colombia, Brazil and Guyana, collapse of informal economies in Peru and Ecuador and the risky waters with Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean Netherlands.

Border closures in Colombia, Brazil and Guyana

When it comes to land frontiers, Venezuela shares borders with Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. A comparatively more hospitable geography and historical ties have made the border with Colombia a more convenient path for Venezuelan refugees. However, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the situation when Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque decided to close the border on March 14, 2020. The porous border between the two countries and the desperation of Venezuelan refugees have allowed people to continue to finding ways of crossing the border, despite the official measures in place. Officially “humanitarian corridors” (corredores humanitarios in Spanish) have remained open between the two countries, particularly to allow Venezuelans wishing to return home. However, the rapid deterioration of the health crisis and the non-coordination of national authorities between both countries have led to confusion and misunderstandings as to how many people are allowed to cross these humanitarian corridors, which days and what alternatives exist for those stranded on either side of the border. Despite these uncertainties and precarious conditions, Colombia’s Ivan Duque contemplates keeping its border closed with Venezuela at least until December 1.

At the request of its northern state of Roraima, Brazil decided on March 17, 2020 (and renewed on June 30, 2020) to temporarily close its border with Venezuela and allow trucks to cross it only for humanitarian reasons. The border closure did not put an end to the massive pressure on Roraima’s health system which was already in dire situation considering the significant influx of refugees over the past 3-4 years. To alleviate the situation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) built a field hospital in Boa Vista, Roraima specifically designed to cater to COVID-19 patients among Venezuelan refugees. Other programs have also striven to provide opportunities to Venezuelan refugees throughout Brazil. Compared to other host countries, Brazil is perceived among Venezuelan refugees to be a desired option, even after the measures taken during the current pandemic.

Historically, the border between Venezuela and Guyana has been a source of international legal dispute. As recent as June 2020, the International Court of Justice has been trying to make progress in the case of Guyana v. Venezuela. Despite the lack of official delimitation of borders between the two countries, thousands of refugees have tried to enter Guyana for years, as reported by Response for Venezuela (R4V). When Guyana’s national authorities decided to close its land borders on April 1, 2020, Venezuelan refugees in the country suffered almost immediately because of the suspension of government programs as well as businesses not deemed essential. 

Collapse of informal economies and livelihoods in Peru and Ecuador

Despite the fact that neither Peru nor Ecuador shares a land border with Venezuela, both countries have some of the highest numbers of Venezuelan refugees in their countries. Another particularity in these countries is the type of Venezuelan refugee which tends to arrive at their borders. Based on a recent report by Migration Policy Institute, most Venezuelan refugees in Peru and Ecuador hold a technical degree or higher, work independently and in informal sectors. Since the first days of national lockdowns in both countries, small and independent businesses, especially in the informal sectors were among the most severely hit by the new and rapid national measures to contain the virus. Major cities such as Guayaquil and Lima with high concentrations of Venezuelan refugees had to face a fast deteriorating situation among these communities.

National governments have struggled to find viable solutions in order to help the number of refugees without proper documents and/or official registration. Most national initiatives to help vulnerable communities have arguably ignored the Venezuelan refugees for which no central agency seemed to have the exact numbers, contacts or networks to reach out to them. In the case of Ecuador, the country has tried to implement humanitarian visas in order to unlock immediate access to the refugees in dire need of help. However, some of these recent initiatives targeting Venezuelan refugees have been met with resistance, misinformation and xenophobia among local communities. A few sectors and groups within the host countries question the need to allocate funds and resources to serve communities which are considered foreigners and transient instead of employing the same funds to the fragile situation among local citizens. 

Risky waters with Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean Netherlands

The treacherous waters of the Caribbean Sea have not prevented Venezuelan refugees from reaching the coasts of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean Netherlands, particularly Aruba and Curaçao. International organizations as well as local politicians have expressed concern as to how best navigate the flow of Venezuelan refugees to small islands while at the same time facing the collapse of their economies overwhelmingly dependent on international tourism as well as the fragile sustainability of scarce local resources. 

A desire to remain neutral in the face of the political turmoil in neighboring Venezuela has driven the official Trinidad and Tobago’s reaction to the refugee crisis. This neutral stance has had to reckon with the reality of being so geographically close to Venezuela and the increasing flow of migrants and even accounts of human trafficking. International as well as local groups have criticized and called upon national authorities to provide a clear and regulated asylum policy to counteract such an emergency. Prime Minister Keith Rowley recently stated that the country will not implement an “open-door” policy. Instead, the government has enacted a series of new measures, including deportations, aiming at reducing the flow of refugees, especially during the current pandemic. International organizations based in the country are increasingly worried about the state of the Venezuelan refugees currently facing so much uncertainty and no viable alternatives.

The situation in the Dutch islands north of the coast of Venezuela is no different. The small size of these islands, fallout of their tourism industries and their shared responsibilities on migration issues with national authorities in Amsterdam and The Hague have created a dangerous and precarious combination for all inhabitants, particularly on vulnerable communities such as Venezuelan refugees. Detention centers, especially in Aruba and Curaçao, have come under increased scrutiny during COVID-19 due to the potential threat of outbreaks in the overcrowded facilities. For those refugees who have managed to create a life in the islands, there is a persistent threat of deportation as well as being denied much needed help because of the lack of proper documentation.

By Marcelo Rodriguez

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