By: Eva Branson
Every day, 5,000 Venezuelans flee their homes. Since 2014, the total number of Venezuelan citizens-turned-refugees has escalated to a staggering 2.3 million, or about 7% of Venezuela’s total population. These individuals are fleeing widespread hunger, excruciating economic deprivation, and mounting authoritarian repression. To date, the international community has contributed millions of dollars in aid to the region. The hosting of refugees, however, has remained absent from the American agenda, and instead been left mainly as an issue for neighboring states like Colombia and Brazil to deal with. While South American countries absorb 90% of Venezuelan refugees and face the resulting instability and violence, the current United States presidential administration has lowered the refugee ceiling to a 38-year low, allowing a maximum of 30,000 total asylum seekers admission into the United States in the 2019 fiscal year. That number is roughly equal to the number of Venezuelans alone estimated to have requested asylum in the US in the past year. The number of refugees flowing from Venezuela is set to keep increasing as hyperinflation continues to run rampant and public health keeps on suffering. As such, it is imperative that the US change its policies to take a more active role in assisting South America as it deals with this crisis. It is equally imperative that the action comes now, before the damage inflicted by the incapable and corrupt Maduro regime becomes irreparable.
The migrant crisis is only worsening. As of now, the Venezuelan economy is in a spiral of hyperinflation. The current inflation rate is nearly one million percent, and that rate is expected to multiply tenfold by the end of 2019. Almost 90% of Venezuelans are currently living under the poverty line and many Venezuelan citizens are severely malnourished: in the last year alone, the average Venezuelan has lost 24.1 pounds as a result of hunger. Infant mortality rose 30% in 2016 alone, and maternal mortality has risen 65% since 2016. The Venezuelan healthcare industry is equipped with only a fraction of the care equipment it needs. As with other refugee crises of today, xenophobic sentiment in host countries has increased. An attack on a makeshift refugee camp in Brazil sent over 1,000 Venezuelans back over the border to their home country. These developments are almost guaranteed to continue in negative directions without direct and immediate action.
Various remedies to alleviate the crisis have been discussed and, to some extent, executed. The US has placed severe sanctions on corrupt Venezuelan government officials, hoping to cripple the authoritarian Maduro regime. These unilateral sanctions have been largely unimpactful. In early September, Ecuador hosted a summit with 12 other countries in the region to discuss policy solutions. The result was the Declaration of Quito on Human Mobility of Venezuelan citizens in the Region, an 18-point declaration promising to provide medical care, public education, and work opportunities to Venezuelans, accept expired Venezuelan travel documents, allocate funds to overwhelmed immigration agencies, and to fight human trafficking, migrant smuggling, and xenophobic reactions toward Venezuelans. Though all of those points are important and necessary to ameliorate the plight of Venezuelan refugees, the declaration fails to address the root of the crisis: the Maduro regime’s increasing propensity to exacerbate economic deprivation. Humanitarian assistance from third parties has been offered, only to be rejected by the Venezuelan government.
Neighboring states have done their best to retain some kind of stability in the face of the region’s largest migrant crisis in modern history. Colombia is estimated to be hosting between 0.6 and 1.1 million Venezuelans. Ecuador reports that at least 547,000 Venezuelans have entered the country between January and August of 2018. Peru is hosting 400,000 refugees. 50,000 of the forced migrants are in Brazil. Many of the migrants in these countries will likely continue their journey into Chile and Argentina. Outside of South America, a minority of Venezuelans are spread across Spain, Mexico, Central America, and the US. The crisis will undoubtedly remain a feature of Latin American politics for years to come – any policy remedies or foreign intervention now is sure to take years to start to repair the damage to Venezuela’s economy and society. Refugees will continue to flow out of Venezuela, necessitating some kind of sustained international aid response to deal with the outflow of Venezuelan refugees. To begin the lengthy reparation process in Venezuela and repatriating its citizens in the near future, firm action from international actors must be taken immediately. The fact is that South American countries cannot take the brunt of this refugee crisis alone: international actors, especially the United States, must assist.
The US has recently drastically revised its role as a humanitarian global leader by announcing the US’ decision to pull out of the UN Human Rights Council. Some base Trump supporters see this as an indication that the US should stay out of sovereign states’ affairs, even if those affairs do constitute human rights violations or crises, reflecting the isolationist approach that has come to characterize the Trump administration’s policy. Though this is one prevalent line of thought on the decision among the electorate, the official rationale given by Haley was that “[f]or too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers” and that instead of working with the Council, the US would “continue to lead on human rights outside of the misnamed Human Rights Council.” From these statements, it is not evident that the US has attempted to free itself from humanitarian obligations – quite the opposite. In her remarks, Haley directly named Venezuela as an “authoritarian [government] with [an] unambiguous and abhorrent human rights [record]”, exactly the kind of country that the US supposedly felt was not reprimanded strongly enough by the UNHRC. Based on these ideas, the US certainly should feel obligated to step in and try to alleviate grievances felt by Venezuelans.
The American response, or lack thereof, to global humanitarian need is unprecedented. Since the establishment of the refugee resettlement program, both republican and democratic presidents have historically raised the refugee cap to reflect humanitarian need. Twice, President Reagan raised the cap to over 200,000 to assist the international community in alleviating refugee crises in countries with toppled communist regimes. More recently, in 2017, President Obama raised the cap to 110,000 to accommodate refugee crises in the Middle East and Africa. The average cap since 1980 is around 90,000 refugees annually. For the 2019 fiscal year, the Trump administration has capped refugee admissions to a measly 30,000. That is less than 4% of the number of Venezuelan refugees Colombia is estimated to be hosting right now. Reading that 30,000 number, one wouldn’t expect that the international community is experiencing such extreme refugee crises in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Venezuela, among others. The Trump administration simply has not been pushed by its base to recognize these crises, producing inaction that cripples regions in need. About one year ago, President Trump publicly expressed consideration of military action against the Maduro regime. Since then, President Trump has authorized well-intentioned but relatively insignificant financial aid and imposed ineffective individual sanctions. The Trump administration’s weak policy has capacitated the western hemisphere’s greatest humanitarian crisis in modern history. The US has a cosmopolitan responsibility, as it has recognized in the past, to alleviate humanitarian crises around the world. To reflect this, it is of critical importance that the US raise its refugee cap and continue to provide and increase aid to neighboring states as they confront the Venezuelan refugee exodus head-on on a daily basis.