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The Venezuelan Emigration Crisis

South America Freedom of Movement Venezuela

The Venezuelan Emigration Crisis

Luisa Feline Freier Soledad Castillo Jara

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Millions of Venezuelans have left their country of origin in the past years. How can this be explained, and how do other South American countries receive these migrants? An overview.

Empty shelves in a supermarket in Caracas/Venezuela in January 2019. Even when food is available in supermarkets, it is still unaffordable due to hyperinflation. (© picture-alliance, ZUMA Press)

The severe economic, political and humanitarian crisis of the Venezuelan state has led at least 4.75 million Venezuelans to leave their country since 2015 – over 15 percent of the country’s total population. Approximately eighty percent of these emigrants have settled in Latin American and the Caribbean. Only a minority who could afford the costs of air travel and met existing visa requirements migrated to the United States, Canada or countries in southern Europe such as Spain, Portugal and Italy. Until January 2020, the countries that received the most Venezuelan migrants and refugees were Colombia (1.63million), Peru (864,000), Chile (371,000), Ecuador (385,000), and Brazil (224,000). With the exception of Chile, these countries had more experience with the outmigration of their nationals in recent history, rather than with inflows of immigrants. For that reason, their governments have struggled to react efficiently to the rapid increase of Venezuelan forced displacement.

Three phases of emigration

In historical perspective, there have been three phases in the process of Venezuelan migration. The first phase began in 2000, the year in which Hugo Chávez was elected for a second term. Mass expropriations of property, the nationalization of industries, growing insecurity, as well as social and political tensions were the main motives for leaving. In this phase, emigrants were mainly middle-class people, businessmen and students. Given their relative wealth, the main destinations were the United States and Europe. The second phase began in 2012 with the end of the boom of Latin American commodities (especially the export of raw materials) and the re-election of Hugo Chávez for a third consecutive term. By then, the Venezuelan economy did not perform as well as before, and the profile of migrants changed to include people from less advantaged social backgrounds. Due to this change, geographically closer countries such as Colombia, Panama and the Dominican Republic, that are cheaper to reach, became the major countries of destination.

The third and current phase began around 2015, after the death of Hugo Chávez and the election of Nicolás Maduro as president in 2013. By then, the crisis in Venezuela had already reached distressing levels. For many, migration now constitutes the only chance of survival. In this phase, we find a very diverse profile of emigrants, including people from the lower classes who cannot afford plane tickets or bus fares and, therefore, do not have other options than embarking on the journey to neighboring countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru on foot, despite the dangers this entails. The increasing vulnerability and irregularly of Venezuelan migrants are paramount challenges for receiving states.

Recent political history

How could a country that until recently was the richest in the region, and a major destination for migrants, turn into a collapsed state whose population has to flee in order to survive? In the seventies, when many countries in Latin America were ruled by military dictatorships, Venezuela was democratic and wealthy. Its prosperous economy and high living standards made it an attractive destination for migrants, particularly other Latin Americans – such as Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Chileans and Argentineans – who were looking for better job opportunities or felt unsafe in their countries due to their political opinions and/or internal conflict. The Venezuelan economy, however, was – and still is – significantly dependent on the price of oil. When oil prices tumbled in the eighties, national debt became a problem. In order to secure assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the government had to implement adjustments and market-oriented policies which generated unrest among the middle-and-lower classes.

Over the years, such policies bolstered support for leftist ideas. In 1998, Hugo Chávez won the presidential elections promising more equality by applying what he called “Socialism of the 21st Century” – a heterodox economic and political concept derived from the ideas of German sociologist Heinz Dieterich. Once in office, Chávez benefited from an increase in international oil prices and rechanneled the country’s wealth to subsidies and social programs for the poor. While successful at first, he did so in a way that was increasingly interventionist and, in the long run, unsustainable. After the death of Chávez, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, faced a new drop in oil prices, as well as the adverse consequences of years of economic mismanagement, which continued to worsen under his administration. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), the current crisis is not a mere by-product of the fall of the oil price, but a clear consequence of the policies that the Venezuelan government implemented since 1999.

The current crisis of the Venezuelan state

At present, the Venezuelan government does not comply with the basic functions of a democratic state – guaranteeing life, security and freedom for its citizens. In early 2019, eight out of ten Venezuelan had reduced their calorie intake because they do not have access to sufficient food, and more than half of the population has lost at least eleven kilograms of weight. Even when food is available in supermarkets, it is still unaffordable due to hyperinflation. For instance, in April 2019, the real value of the minimum wage only covered 4.7 percent of the basic family food basket. Already in early 2019, approximately 87 percent of the nearly 29 million Venezuelans lived in poverty, and extreme poverty stood at over 60 percent. Even the so-called CLAP (Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción) boxes – food assistance given out to the poor by the government – did not meet the adequate nutritional requirements.

The family food basket

In many Latin American countries, the family food basket ("canasta familiar de alimentos") is defined as the mixture of basic dietary products which adequately cover the energy requirements of all family members. Government departments frequently use the cost of the family food basket as the basis for the establishment of minimum wages for different socioeconomic groups. *

*M. Flores/V.W. Bent (1980): Canasta familiar de alimentos, definicion y metodologia. Externer Link: (accessed: 6-11-2019).

Similarly, the public health system has collapsed. In 2019, the OAS found a shortage of 78 percent in morphine, 68 percent in hypertension medicines and 52 percent in insulin. Hospitals lacked 88 percent of medicines and 79 percent of medical and surgical materials. Not a single laboratory in the public health system was fully functional because of a lack of reagents. At the same time, 53 percent of operating rooms were inoperative and 70.7 percent of emergency rooms were deficient or function intermittently, which is mainly due to the shortage of water and electricity. In addition to this undersupply, health care in Venezuela is reportedly politicized. For example, Cuban doctors who temporarily work with thousands of other Cuban medical staff in Venezuela report, according to the New York Times and the BBC, that the provision of essential public medical services is used strategically to push Venezuelans to vote for the ruling party.

According to the OAS, social control is also exercised through the so-called "homeland card" (Carnet de la Patria). This proof of identity is required to gain access to social benefits such as food aid, medicine, housing or work. The data stored on this ID card has supposedly been used to make the voting behavior of Venezuelan citizens in 2017 and 2018 transparent. In addition, the homeland card has reportedly been used to record personal data such as income, ownership, medical history, membership in political parties or participation in elections, with the aim of making social services dependent on the person's loyalty to the regime.

In terms of security, the state does not meet its obligation to protect its citizens by prosecuting crimes. In 2018, the national homicide rate was of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest rate in the continent. In 2019, Venezuela ranked 144 out of 163 countries in the Global Peace Index, which means that it is not only the least peaceful country in South America but also one of the least peaceful globally. Furthermore, the OAS has identified cases of physical and psychological violence perpetrated by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) – two law-enforcement agencies – and it is estimated that between 2014 and May 2019, almost 15,000 people were arbitrarily arrested. There is also extensive evidence and testimonies of extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual violence, political imprisonment, among other crimes committed by the state, particularly in the context of demonstrations organized by the opposition.

Policy reactions to Venezuelan displacement

As a consequence of the aforementioned state crisis, at least 4.75 million Venezuelans had left the country by end 2019, and this number could reach seven million by the end of 2020 according to UNHCR estimates. The vast majority of them have stayed within the region. The fast increase of Venezuelan emigration and forced displacement poses a serious challenge to the main receiving countries in Latin America, which in their majority have no recent experience with large-scale immigration, and even less so of vulnerable humanitarian migrants. Perhaps little surprisingly, a coordinated and sustainable regional approach has been lacking, and Latin American governments rather reacted in an ad-hoc fashion. In many cases, early reception measures implemented by Latin American host countries were rather open and generous. Lately, with the increasing number of immigrants and the increase of xenophobic sentiment in the region, they have become more restrictive.

Various types of policy responses can be identified. A first group of countries have chosen the most pragmatic and legally most sound option: They have unilaterally extended the residence agreements of the MERCOSUR or UNASUR regional blocs to Venezuelan citizens. Although Venezuela was suspended as a member of MERCOSUR in 2017, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have decided to continue applying the Residence Agreement to Venezuelans in order to avoid affecting the population through a measure that was explicitly intended to sanction the government, but not to harm the Venezuelan people. According to this policy, Venezuelans are allowed to reside in the host country for two years with the option of subsequently applying for permanent residence. Visa requirements originally included a valid passport and a clean criminal record, but concessions have been made for those who could not access these documents. Ecuador, on the other hand, in its Human Mobility Law (Ley Orgánica de Movilidad Humana) of 2017 established the category of South American citizen, which allowed entry and residence in Ecuador to people coming from any country in UNASUR, including Venezuela. However, this visa costs USD 250, which most Venezuelans cannot afford to pay or only with great difficulty. However, the UNASUR alliance, founded in 2008, has politically imploded since most of its former member states have withdrawn their membership.

A second group of countries established special entry and residence permits for Venezuelan citizens. Colombia and Peru originally developed various types of ad hoc special permits for Venezuelan citizens. The Colombian Border Mobility Card (Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronteriza, TMF) dates back to February 2017 and allowed Venezuelans to travel freely between the two countries. Between January 2017 and October 2018, Peru granted the Temporary Permanence Permit (Permiso Temporal de Permanencia, PTP) and Colombia implemented the Special Permit of Permanence (Permiso Especial de Permanencia, PEP). However, these special visa programs were time limited and often only retroactively granted legal status to irregular migrants already in the country. Colombia has a new special permit called Special Complementary Permanence Permit (Permiso Especial Complementario de Permanencia, PECP) in place since July 2019, which is available for all Venezuelans who have requested the recognition of refugee status between August 19, 2015 and December 31, 2018.

More recently, we observe increasingly restrictive policy measures in the region. Chile, Peru and Ecuador have implemented increasingly strict entry requirements for Venezuelan migrants with the introduction of so-called humanitarian visas. In April 2018, Chile began issuing a one-year special residence visa, called the Visa of Democratic Responsibility, which required a valid passport and cost about USD 90. Similarly, in July and August 2019, Peru and Ecuador started to require so-called Humanitarian Visas, which require a passport and clean criminal record and must be previously applied for in the consulates of the respective country in Venezuela. Both documents cost small fortunes (obtaining a passport in a reasonable amount of time can cost various thousands of USD) due to backlogs, lacking material and corruption, thus limiting the legal access of Venezuelan migrants to Ecuador and Peru. In practice, these visas thus represent socio-economic filters because most Venezuelans cannot afford to acquire the necessary documents. Thus, these measures push the majority of new migrants towards irregularity.

Legal Obligations

Regarding their legal obligations, and recalling the economic, political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela outlined above, Latin American states should apply the Cartagena definition of refugee to Venezuelan forcibly displaced migrants. This definition dates back to the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 and has successively been incorporated into the national legislation of fifteen countries in the region. It extends the right to international protection to victims of generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights and other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order. This means that, at least nominally, the definition of refugee in Latin America is much broader than the one laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention and applies to the situation in Venezuela. Granting Venezuelans the status of refugees would help them to ensure regular status in their destination countries, as well as the right to work and access to basic public services such as healthcare and education.

However, Mexico and Brazil currently are the only countries that apply the definition of refugee of the Cartagena Agreement to Venezuelan citizens. This can be explained by the fact that Mexico has received much fewer Venezuelan migrants than South American countries, and that Brazil has taken a firm diplomatic stance against Maduro. Other South American governments fear that applying the Cartagena Agreement, and thus accepting virtually all Venezuelans as refugees, could lead to a further influx in flows, putting more stress on already underperforming public services and worsening xenophobic sentiment. Instead of applying their laws and full-filling their legal obligation to protect vulnerable Venezuelans, we observe the increasing securitization and political capitalization of the migration issue reflecting developments in the Global North. Not least, local media have played critical role in this regard, propelling fears of an ostensible increase of crime, which is blamed on Venezuelan migrants.

Weitere Inhalte

Luisa Feline Freier is Assistant Professor at the Universidad del Pacífico, Lima, Peru. Her research foci include migration and refugee policies and laws in Latin America, international agreements on migration and refuge as well as south-south migratory flows. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and studied Latin American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, and the University of Cologne, Germany.

Soledad Castillo Jara is Research Assistant at the Universidad del Pacífico, Lima, Peru.