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How Much Longer Can Venezuela's Neighboring Countries Handle the Refugee Crisis?

The number of Venezuelan refugees will reach 5.4 million by the end of 2019, according to projections from the United Nations.
Members of the Venezuelan Indigenous group Warao take refuge at the Janokoida United Nations shelter on April 6th, 2019, in Pacaraima, Brazil.

Members of the Venezuelan Indigenous group Warao take refuge at the Janokoida United Nations shelter on April 6th, 2019, in Pacaraima, Brazil.

The political and socioeconomic crisis in Venezuela has spurred an unprecedented population outflow. It is currently the biggest exodus in Latin America's recent history and the second-largest displacement crisis in the world, after Syria. Between 2015 and now, the number of Venezuelans fleeing their country went from 695,000 to four million, according to the United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Throughout 2018, roughly 5,000 people left Venezuela on a daily basis—pushed by lack of access to food and essential services, as well as violence—with projections that there will be 5.4 million Venezuelans living abroad by the end of 2019.

Such a massive and fast influx of people also has a ripple effect on the receiving end.

"Latin American and Caribbean countries are doing their part to respond to this unprecedented crisis but they cannot be expected to continue doing it without international help," Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM special representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, said in a statement.

So far, Colombia is hosting the most significant number of migrants, 1.3 million, followed by Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina. Most nations have stood in solidarity with the Venezuelan people and tried to keep an "open-door" policy. Just this week, Colombia announced that it will offer citizenship to more than 24,000 children of Venezuelan refugees born in the country between August of 2015 and 2021. And Brazil, for the first time, implemented an expanded definition of refugees to allow for the recognition of more cases from Venezuela.

"Most Latin American countries appear to be making a bet that finding legal pathways for immigrants and refugees to come in the front door, rather than the back way, is a better approach to ensure optimal outcomes not just for the newcomers but for the communities where they settle," Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, wrote recently for Americas Quarterly. In a recent report, the organization says Venezuela's neighboring countries have "responded with creativity and pragmatism," mentioning the creation of temporary programs and the use of pre-existing visas to provide legal status.

But when faced with internal frustrations over strained resources or xenophobia-related fears, the governments of Panama, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador have all taken steps to curb the migration flow and make it more difficult for refugees to enter. Most Latin American nations don't have the capacity to address the overpowering humanitarian needs of a growing refugee population—including food, shelter, medical care, and employment—or to efficiently process requests for documentation, despite their best intentions. In a recent Twitter post, when referring to a Brazilian armed forces operation to provide basic assistance at the northern border with Venezuela, David Smilde, a senior fellow with the research and advocacy organization the Washington Office on Latin America, said it had "some rough edges" and was insufficient, but also raised "the bar for countries in the region."

Last December, the UNHCR and IOM announced the Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, a roadmap for 95 organizations in 16 countries to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of Venezuelans. It also requested $738 million in funding to assist 2.7 million people, but only 34 percent of the goal had been met as of June.

While a coordinated regional effort has been at the cutting edge of the issue, some argue that it isn't sustainable.

"Latin American neighbors are pulling more than their weight," Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs.

What is needed, Arnson argues, is for the larger international community to mobilize, as it has done with the refugee crisis in Syria, and to fully recognize fleeing Venezuelans as refugees. Under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration recently adopted in Brazil, those who don't necessarily fit the classic definition of refugee—fleeing direct persecution on account of race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group—could still qualify for protection on the basis that "lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."

Even if countries outside of Latin America do rise to the occasion, the end of the crisis in Venezuela will still be out of sight for the near future. And as some of the creative temporary measures meet their expiration dates, Venezuela's generous neighboring countries will have to start thinking about what to do next.