In the streets of Lima, the number of informal vendors has multiplied since 2015. The newcomers are mostly Venezuelans and they are easy to recognize – they wear caps with a shiny V on the front and jackets with their homeland’s yellow, blue and red flag across their chest. They also sell atypical products for Peruvians, like Venezuelan pastries and arepas, a national staple made from maize flour.
Luis Antonio Pérez sells hot chocolate and sweet bread. The 24-year-old came all the way from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on foot and by hitchhiking. It took him and his best friend 20 days to reach Lima. Antonio was studying philosophy at a university in Venezuela, but as the situation worsened, he had to drop out. “It was either studying or eating, and I chose to eat,” he says.
Over two million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015. Over 450,000 have made their way to Peru, the highest arrivals figure after Colombia, which has nearly one million Venezuelans in its territory. Peru has also become the top destination country for Venezuelans seeking refugee protection, with over 150,000 asylum requests.
“I commend Peru for keeping their doors open and creating alternative legal ways to allow Venezuelans to stay. Addressing the humanitarian needs of Venezuelans and easing their legal requirements to work and access social services in host countries should be a regional priority, and it will require more support from the international community,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi during a visit to Lima and Tumbes, at the Peru-Ecuador border.
Grandi is on a week-long mission to South America to see first-hand the needs of Venezuelans who have left their country, and to discuss best responses with the hosting countries in the region.
"They remain more vulnerable if they do not register themselves formally.”
Luis Antonio stands with his thermos on a busy corner across from the headquarters of Peru’s National Superintendence of Migration. Since May 2018, the office has been open 24 hours a day to attend the overwhelming number of requests from Venezuelans looking to legalize their status in the country. Lima is the only place where they can obtain the documents needed to get a temporary permit which allows them to work and thousands visit the office every day.
A reception area has been turned into a childcare centre, where volunteer primary school teachers take care of kids while their parents wait for their paperwork. The toys, crayons and blocks available are all donations from migration officers.
Peru is trying to ease the process of regularizing Venezuelans migratory status, in an effort to give them quick access to work opportunities. In January 2017, the Peruvian government established a Temporary Stay Permit for Venezuelans who legally entered Peru, granting them the right to work, study and open a bank account for one year, with the possibility of renewal. More than 110,000 Venezuelans have so far obtained the permit.
“We needed a mechanism that would allow them to stay in Peru. They remain more vulnerable if they do not register themselves formally,” says Roxana del Águila, general manager at the National Superintendence of Migration, about the Temporary Stay Permit.
Gaining access to social services saved the life of Kelvin Briceño’s wife. Shortly after the family reunited in Lima in January 2018, Marelis fell severely ill. One night she collapsed, and Kelvin took her to the hospital. Marelis spent 22 days in the intensive care unit with kidney failure.
Kelvin’s earnings selling iced tea on the street were not enough to pay for the hospital bills. On top of that, he had to take care of their two-year-old daughter, Jimena, by himself.
“I did not have the money to pay, I did not have health insurance,” Kelvin says. “I was scared that she would fall ill again, because we could not afford to get her dialysis regularly.”
Three weeks later, Marelis went into a crisis again. She spent another 12 days at the hospital. But by this time, she had been able to legalize her status in Peru due to her illness. Her residence card grants her access to the public health system. Very few Venezuelans – only 0.6 per cent of those in Peru – are granted extraordinary residency related to vulnerability like Marelis’ and thereby have access to the national health system.
Marelis is now able to get her regular dialysis. Kelvin is in the process of getting the Temporary Stay Permit for him and their daughter Jimena – yet currently the permit does not grant access to the health system. Only pregnant women and children under five have public health access.
The family gets by selling empanadas Kelvin cooks early in the morning and a local church offered them a space to live.
“I was scared that she would fall ill again, because we could not afford to get her dialysis regularly.”
Venezuelan refugees and migrants arriving in Peru are in dire need of advice and support. Beyond food and shelter, the difficult journeys they have gone through has had a lasting impact on their psychological health.
Soon after her arrival at the Scalabrini temporary shelter, Luz Tamara Angulo began providing psychosocial support to other fellow Venezuelans. Although she has only been in Peru for four and a half months, Luz has become the go-to person for the 80 Venezuelan migrants and refugees currently living at the shelter.
She patiently listens to their stories and answers their questions about how to find a job or legalize their status. Over a quarter of them are children. Luz pays special attention to their psychological needs.
“Many are anxious about the unknown, because they have lost their home,” Luz says. “It was their community, their family– losing all that in the blink of an eye is something they don’t understand.”
Luz has also noticed many children who had not had enough to eat for a long time. “That has a huge impact on the cognitive aspects of the child,” she says.
“The type of job they are performing also has a psychological impact.”
Psychologist Julio Rondinel has noticed similar patterns among adults. He works with a group of Venezuelans in Callao, a working class suburb of Lima that has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Venezuelans living there. Depression and anxiety are very common.
Many suffer an “emotional crisis” due to the fact that a big part of their family is still back in Venezuela, the psychologist explains. “They represent the hope for the whole family to survive. Being here means ‘I came to save the others,” he says.
Another factor that increases their emotional stress is that many of the Venezuelans arriving in Peru are educated professionals, says Rondinel. Back in Venezuela they were teachers, doctors, engineers while here in Peru they struggle to get any jobs and often end up as informal sellers on the street. “The type of job they are performing also has a psychological impact,” he says. “It affects their self-confidence, their social acceptance.”
Migsoe Moreno, 40, is one of Rondinel’s patients. She was a teacher back in Venezuela, but in the three months she has been living in Lima she has not been able to find a stable job and has had to resort to street selling to maintain herself and her two daughters.
“We come prepared, and we want to contribute our knowledge to this country,” Migsoe says with tears in her eyes. “We want to formalize our stay in this country that is opening its doors to us.”