Few issues have been dominating headlines in recent days more than Venezuela’s slip into authoritarian rule and economic ruin. The U.S. government and another 13 governments in the Americas recognized the Speaker of Venezuela’s Assembly, 35-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó, rather than incumbent president Nicolás Maduro, after an election deemed fraudulent by many in the international community. Several European governments seemed set to follow suit. The U.S. government also imposed restrictions on the import of Venezuelan oil, the country’s main source of foreign currency, a measure designed to spur the collapse the of the Maduro regime.
It is uncertain whether these measures will be enough to bring a change in government in Venezuela, but what is certain is that Venezuelans themselves have been abandoning their country in large numbers over the past few years—well over 3 million out of a population that was once 34 million—and these measures will almost certainly increase these flows, at least in the short term.
Unlike prior migration flows from Latin America, most Venezuelans haven’t headed to the United States or Europe but rather to other countries in Latin America. Colombia is now home to over a million Venezuelans, Peru to well over half a million, and Ecuador to a quarter million. There are also around 100,000 Venezuelan immigrants and refugees in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Panama, and around 40,000 in Mexico. Most of them have arrived in the past two or three years, making this one of the fastest and largest migration and refugee flows anywhere in the world.
What has been remarkable about this migration is that it has happened for the most part with little fanfare or conflict.
What has been remarkable about this migration is that it has happened for the most part with little fanfare or conflict, as we document in a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute and the Organization of American States. And most of the receiving countries have gone out of their way to implement measures that allow the Venezuelans to obtain some form of legal status that allows them to work and access education and healthcare opportunities.
Colombia and Peru, for example, have both implemented large regularization campaigns to give Venezuelan migrants temporary legal status. In Peru, temporary migrants get few benefits, other than the right to work, but they can transition to permanent residency after a year. Over 400,000 Venezuelans have taken part in this regularization program. In Colombia, more than half a million Venezuelans have applied for temporary protected status, which allows them to use the schools and hospitals, as well as work, but not to become a permanent resident. Colombia has also extended border cards to over 2.8 million Venezuelans, who are allowed to come and go across the border as long as they stay within a defined region of the country. Brazil has also conducted its own regularization program for Venezuelan migrants, though on a far smaller scale.
Argentina, meanwhile, has offered Mercosur visas to Venezuelans who ask for them, even though Venezuela has long been suspended from Mercosur, the South American economic pact that once united the countries. The Argentinian government, working with Venezuelan diaspora groups, has also gone out of its way to try to recognize professional titles that Venezuelan immigrants already have and then match them with jobs outside the capital city. Since the Venezuelan migrants on average are fairly educated, it has been a smart approach to try to fill positions in smaller and more remote communities that often lack doctors, dentists, engineers, and teachers, while helping the immigrants find useful work in their new country.
Despite the overall sense of solidarity that many Latin Americans feel towards their neighbors who have been displaced by almost unimaginable hardship, the arrival of so many newcomers so quickly has put a strain on already overstretched public services.
Ecuador has taken a leadership role in getting countries to keep their doors open by accepting alternate forms of identification besides current passports, which are particularly hard to obtain in Venezuela. A group of Latin American countries, convened by the Ecuadorian government, have largely tried to find ways of accepting expired passports and national identification cards as valid documents to enter their countries, though each government has done this in a slightly different way.
Interestingly, despite the degree of political conflict and violence in Venezuela, few countries have channeled Venezuelans into their asylum system, with the exception of Mexico, preferring instead to give them alternate forms of temporary and permanent legal status. Most countries realize that their asylum systems are simply not equipped to handle the number of Venezuelans who might want asylum for political reasons, although it remains a pending challenge to fix these systems so that they can respond to the growing need of those seeking refuge from specific cases of persecution or more generalized violence.
It’s hardly surprising that there is already a backlash starting against the number of Venezuelans arriving in some of the countries of the region. Despite the overall sense of solidarity that many Latin Americans feel towards their neighbors who have been displaced by almost unimaginable hardship—and the practical calculation by many governments that they would much rather have legal rather than irregular immigrants in their country—the arrival of so many newcomers so quickly has put a strain on already overstretched public services. Schools and hospitals, which are chronically understaffed in some parts of Latin America, have been particularly hard hit in some cities and towns.
Latin American countries are latecomers to the global debate about migration. Now they are experiencing immigration too, as Venezuelans fan out across the neighborhood, fleeing the chaos of their collapsing nation.
In this environment, the governments of Chile and Panama have imposed new restrictions on Venezuelan migrants which require them to get visas in their own country before leaving. Meanwhile, even Ecuador, which has led the campaign to keep borders open, started imposing new restrictions on Venezuelan arrivals this week, giving in to growing anti-immigrant sentiment that erupted after a Venezuelan immigrant committed a horrific crime. Solidarity has been widespread, but it is also fragile and can easily give way to resentment and anger given the real competition for services on the ground and fears, rational or not, that often emerge with the arrival of a large group of newcomers.
Latin American countries are latecomers to the global debate about migration. Most of the countries in the region have long been a source of out-migration to other parts of the world—usually the United States and Europe—and most only recently saw a drop in these flows with many of their citizens beginning to return home. Now they are experiencing immigration too, as Venezuelans fan out across the neighborhood, fleeing the chaos of their collapsing nation.
For the most part, the countries of Latin America are showing immense thoughtfulness and generosity in their responses to this new migration flow, and they are opting to keep the door open—for now—and to try to integrate the newcomers into their economies and societies. It is hard to know, however, how long these open door policies will last. Much will surely depend on how long Venezuela’s crisis lasts, and how many Venezuelans are forced to seek a more hopeful future abroad.
Andrew Selee is a Pacific Council member and the president of the Migration Policy Institute.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.