Opening remarks at the International Solidarity Conference on the Venezuelan Refugee and Migrant Crisis
Good evening ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start by recalling again why we are here today.
Four and a half million men, women, girls and boys have had no other choice but to leave their homes in Venezuela, for reasons we know: political instability, growing insecurity and human rights violations, all compounded by the economic collapse of the country.
Once a generous host to large numbers of refugees and migrants, Venezuela has become the opposite, the epicentre of the biggest and fastest population outflow in Latin America’s recent history, and one of the largest displacement crises globally.
This continues every day. On average, every day 5,000 Venezuelans join the ranks of those that have left. At the moment, there seems to be no end in sight to this exodus. A large number of the Venezuelans leaving the country are in need of international refugee protection, as well as access to basic services and livelihoods.
Moreover, Venezuelans on the move, particularly those crossing borders in an irregular way, face severe risks in their journey to safety and better living conditions. Many are exposed to exploitation and abuse and encounter difficulties in exercising basic rights.
And as the figures grow, so does the hardship they endure. In recent months, as conditions inside their country deteriorate, we have observed - among those leaving - a steady increase in the proportion of those especially vulnerable, both children and adults.
For years, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have opened homes and hearts to their Venezuelan brothers and sisters. More than 80 percent of all Venezuelan refugees and migrants have remained in the region.
And, despite immense pressures, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have shown solidarity with the Venezuelan people. Over two million residence permits have been granted. Over 650,000 asylum claims have been lodged by Venezuelans, in those countries. They are not confined to camps, but live in towns and cities together with local people, with whom they share linguistic, historical and cultural links. Colombia’s decision to grant citizenship at birth to the children of Venezuelans in the country is the most recent example of this solidarity.
But this cannot be sustained alone. Host country budgets are strained to the limit - their resources diminishing, and their institutions and infrastructure. This is the key issue of this conference, pending a political solution.
The Regional Platform co-led by IOM and UNHCR has provided an important coordination and joint planning mechanism, engaging 41 partners from across the region and beyond. But this is designed to address the most essential urgent protection and humanitarian needs – and even at that, the Regional Response Plan is just half funded. And another, larger one, will be launched in a few weeks’ time.
Beyond this, development investments are badly needed - in education systems, health facilities, infrastructure and local economies. These investments are critical if national systems and services are to bear up under the strain, but they are materializing only very slowly. I welcome the involvement of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank’s decision to extend concessional financing to Colombia, and potentially Ecuador. I urge them to continue and accelerate their interventions. I urge others - international financial institutions, bilateral development agencies, the private sector - to follow their lead, and fast.
What is at stake is the stability, the prosperity and the welfare of the whole region.
And this is something that should matter to us all.
In my travels to the neighbouring countries and beyond, I have seen how host communities – especially those in remote border areas - struggle to provide food, water, education, health, employment and housing to thousands of Venezuelans. National capacities and host communities are being stretched to breaking point, which means regional solidarity and political will may erode in the face of insufficient international support.
This background offers already, most regrettably, a fertile terrain to the irresponsible use of social media and radical statements by some, which fuel extremely worrying acts of hatred, intolerance and xenophobia.
Faced with these challenges, it is essential that governments and societies, with our help, respond with a clear and strong message. Political and opinion leaders have a clear responsibility to create an atmosphere conducive to the integration of refugees and migrants by condemning xenophobic and intolerant attitudes and actions, and appealing to peace, justice, calm and restraint. And we should support them to do that.
Another source of concern are the stricter conditions being imposed by some countries in the region on the admission of Venezuelan citizens, giving their growing numbers.
States have the right – and indeed an obligation to their citizens – to manage access to their territories. I trust these measures will be exercised in a manner consistent with refugee protection standards. And those restrictions do not send a good message to countries, like Colombia, that share a border with Venezuela and have taken a considerable share of the responsibility to assist and protect Venezuelans.
Moreover, given the current situation in their country, Venezuelans find it increasingly difficult to comply with entry requirements. These, therefore, increase the risk of irregular movements, putting people at greater risk from human smugglers and traffickers.
I call on all countries in the region to continue to articulate and coordinate their policies and to exchange information and good practices through the Quito Process. This is a very good government-led initiative which marks a significant step forward in harmonizing policies, scaling up the humanitarian response and integrating refugees and migrants. I very much welcome the initiative that has been discussed to create a Group of Friends of the Quito Process, which brings together host countries, the international community and international financial institutions.
Addressing the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis requires a global and inclusive partnership, in which solidarity and responsibility are shared by the entire international community, not only by host countries in the region.
This is the beginning of a continuous process over the coming months to mobilise substantial additional funding, including if possible through a pledging conference, to address the increasingly urgent needs and socioeconomic integration challenges of Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
Today, with this International Solidarity Conference, we want to send a strong message to the Venezuelan refugees and migrants and their hosts in Latin America and in the Caribbean, that the world has not forgotten them and that we will support them in their time of greatest need.