“We left everything in Venezuela. We don’t have a place to live or sleep and have nothing to eat.”
–Nayebis Carolina Figuera, a 34-year-old from Venezuela who fled to neighbouring Brazil
In the past, Venezuela hosted thousands of refugees from the region and other parts of the world. Now the number of Venezuelans compelled to leave their homes continues to increase, and a significant number of them are in need of international protection. Over 4 million Venezuelans have left their country to date, according to data from governments receiving them, making this among the world’s biggest recent displacement crises.
There has been an 8,000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide since 2014, principally in the Americas. Many Venezuelans who would meet the criteria are not registering for refugee procedures and are instead opting for alternative legal forms of stay, which are easier and faster to obtain and allow access to work, education and social services.
However, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain without any documentation or permission to stay regularly in nearby countries, and therefore lack guaranteed access to basic rights. This makes them particularly vulnerable to labour and sexual exploitation, trafficking, violence, discrimination and xenophobia.
The majority of refugees and migrants from Venezuela arriving in neighbouring countries are families with children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities. Often obliged to take irregular routes to reach safety, they may fall prey to smugglers, traffickers and irregular armed groups. As more and more families arrive with fewer and fewer resources, they are in immediate need of documentation, protection, shelter, food and medicine.
Host countries and communities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and the southern Caribbean have been generously welcoming them, but are increasingly overstretched and some are reaching a saturation point.
“We walked for 11 days and had to sleep outside. We left because they threatened to kill us. My brother was killed… They almost killed me.”
–Ana, Venezuelan woman in Ecuador
What is UNHCR doing to help?
Throughout the region, UNHCR has stepped up its response and is working closely with host governments and partners, particularly IOM, to support a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the needs of refugees and migrants from Venezuela. Concretely, we are collecting data to better understand the specific needs of Venezuelans; supporting States to improve reception conditions, coordinate the provision of information and assistance to meet Venezuelans’ immediate basic needs including shelter; and combating discrimination and xenophobia through awareness campaigns.
Notably, we have strengthened our presence along key borders to limit to the extent possible risks, in particular with regard to access to territory, trafficking, exploitation, and to identify people who may require dedicated protection and services, such as unaccompanied and separated children and pregnant women. UNHCR also provides support and legal orientation on arrival and distributes drinking water, and hygiene kits for women and children at border areas. Our teams also provide cash assistance to the most vulnerable Venezuelans.
UNHCR is also supporting government registration efforts in Aruba, Brazil, Colombia, Curacao, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago. In Peru, asylum requests from Venezuelans have increased more than five-fold, from 33,100 in 2017 to 190,500 in 2018. In Brazil, 61,600 asylum claims were submitted, up from the 17,900 reported in 2017.
Across the region, UNHCR complements government efforts to provide emergency shelter for Venezuelans arriving in the border states and main cities. In Brazil, we are providing site planning, tents, relief items, drinking fountains, registration through biometrics, community mobilization, information dissemination and site management. So far, 13 temporary shelters have opened in Boa Vista and Pacaraima, hosting over 6,000 Venezuelans. In Maicao, Colombia, a temporary reception centre opened in March 2019, set up at the request of national and local authorities, with an initial capacity to host 350 individuals.
UNHCR has also installed child-friendly spaces and spaces for breast-feeding mothers at border crossing points and is advocating with host governments to facilitate access to education for Venezuelan children. UNHCR has established networks of volunteers to improve our links with the communities and ensure two-way communication and accountability, while working with different population groups, including women, children, elderly people, young people and people with disabilities as well as indigenous and LGBTI groups. In addition, UNHCR is coordinating with partners on the establishment of a regional Support Spaces initiative to ensure that refugees and migrants receive updated and reliable information and a minimum package of services in key locations across the region.
To promote the integration of refugees and migrants in their host communities, UNHCR works closely with local authorities and the private sector and supports the provision of vocational training to Venezuelans. UNHCR is also supporting the relocation of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the Brazilian state of Roraima to other parts of the country where there are more employment opportunities and services.
“It took us over seven days to reach Peru. We had nothing to eat at the end. We tried to spare all for our son, but he also went over 24 hours without a bite. He is only three.”
Gerardo, Venezuelan father in Peru
In an effort to curb xenophobia against Venezuelans and promote solidarity, UNHCR, in coordination with partners, has launched several campaigns in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.
Humanitarian assistance, as well as increased support for socio-economic inclusion, need to be urgently scaled-up to complement government efforts and ensure communities continue to accept refugees and migrants in a safe and welcoming environment. To ensure a comprehensive UN-wide response, and to support the efforts of main receiving governments, the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for the Venezuela situation – led by UNHCR and IOM – launched the Regional Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants (RMRP) from Venezuela on 13 November 2019. The plan, developed with some 137 partners, aims to support refugees and migrants from Venezuela as well as its host communities. It is the first of its kind in the Americas: a strategic and operational blueprint, a coordination template, and a funding mechanism for responding to the needs of Venezuelans on the move.