Death threats and disease drive more Venezuelans to flee
José and Yurmi hurriedly gathered up their seven-month-old baby, packed some clothes and walked the few kilometres that separate Venezuela from Colombia. José, a doctor who volunteered with local communities near the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, had just been warned of a threat to his life.
“The person that was paid to kill me was one of my closest patients. He said that he would have accepted the US$790 he was offered to take my life if he hadn’t been so grateful to me for treating his relatives,” José explains. “It is a lot of money. Anyone would have taken that offer.”
José and Yurmi’s search for safety brought them to a shelter in Bogotá, Colombia – supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency - where they are spending a few nights until they can regularise their situation, pay rent and settle in safety.
There are currently some 3.7 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela worldwide, the vast majority in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the worsening political, economic, human rights and humanitarian situation in Venezuela, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, now considers that the majority of those fleeing the country are in need of international refugee protection.
“The person that was paid to kill me was one of my closest patients."
Given the deteriorating circumstances, UNHCR today issued updated guidance, calling on countries to allow Venezuelans access to their territory and highlighting the critical importance of ensuring access to asylum procedures for those forced to run for their lives. The note also recommends countries not to deport or forcibly return Venezuelans as their lives may be put at risk.
The guidance note includes recommendations on how to handle cases such as that of Juan Carlos, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who had worked for three years in the communications department of a state-owned business in Venezuela. He never imagined that an interview with the local press revealing irregularities at the office where he worked could place him in grave danger.
When the interview was published he suffered intimidation at work. “I was humiliated,” he recalls. “They treated me as if I was worthless and they threatened to kill me, forcing me to resign.”
Pressured by these threats Juan Carlos quit his job, but the harassment and death threats did not stop. One night, he was intercepted on his way home by a group of armed individuals who attacked and tortured him.
“The next morning, still in a state of shock, I filed a complaint. They never gave me a copy,” says Juan Carlos. “I was no longer myself. I was crying all day long, I was scared no matter where I was.”
But things got worse when he tried to obtain his birth certificate and he discovered he was no longer part of the national records. “There was no record of my existence. Neither a copy nor the original appeared.”
Juan Carlos fled to Ecuador where he has since applied for asylum. He says that all the hardships faced in the past have made him stronger. His focus now is to study filmmaking.
More than 464,000 Venezuelans like him have claimed asylum worldwide. Many more have been able to obtain other kinds of visas that provide access to schools, national health systems and the right to work in other countries, most in South America. However, many remain in an irregular situation without easy access to safety and most of them, cannot return to Venezuela any time soon.
UNHCR in the region is providing operational support and technical assistance to governments to help them determine the legal status of Venezuelans effectively and ensure they have access to international protection on the basis of threats to their lives, security or freedom resulting from the events that are currently seriously disturbing public order in Venezuela.
“Regional governments have been generous in their response to the Venezuela crisis, granting Venezuelans refugee status or otherwise allowing them to work, study and access basic services in their hour of need,” said Renata Dubini, UNHCR’s director for the Americas. “As the situation there worsens, they must continue to allow Venezuelans to remain without fear of return, and with costs and other requirements eased where needed.”
Collapsing healthcare is also driving Venezuelans to save their lives, among them father-of-five Euligio Baez, a 33-year-old indigenous Warao from Delta Amacuro in Venezuela. He abandoned the Warao’s ancestral lands and took his entire family to Brazil after three relatives died.
“Diseases were getting stronger than us. I told myself, either we leave or we die.”
"When my nine-month-old daughter died because of the lack of medicines, doctors or treatment, I decided to take my family out of Venezuela before another one of my children died," says Euligio, in clear distress. “Diseases were getting stronger than us. I told myself, either we leave or we die.”
Children are particularly affected by the scarcity of medicines and food, and Venezuela Health Ministry reports show a dramatic increase in child mortality.
Euligio explains that the decision to abandon their land is especially difficult for indigenous people because it represents their roots. "If my land, Venezuela, was not going through this situation, we would have never left. We thought many times about staying but when many people started to die, one after another, it was the only option we had."
He and his family now live in Boa Vista, Brazil, some 250 kilometres from the border with Venezuela. With the support of UNHCR, government partners and NGOs, three of Eulirio's five children are studying at the local school.
"Living in a shelter is totally different from what we know. There is not much contact with nature, we have to adapt to the food, the local habits, but we are doing it to protect our children,” Euligio explains. “I dream of the day we will be able to return to our land and have our children safe again.”
Additional reporting by Ilaria Rapido in Quito, Ecuador and Allana Ferreira in Boa Vista, Brazil. Writing by Olga Sarrado Mur in Panama City