Dispatches: South America's Migrant Crisis - Pacific Standard

Dispatches: South America's Migrant Crisis

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Venezuelan citizens cross the Simon Bolivar international bridge from San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela to Norte de Santander province of Colombia on February 10th, 2018.

Venezuelan citizens cross the Simon Bolivar international bridge from San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela to Norte de Santander province of Colombia on February 10th, 2018.

As Venezuelans leave their collapsing home country in greater and greater numbers, experts warn that the current migrant crisis in South America is on track to rival the refugee crisis that rocked Europe in 2015. Recent United Nations reports estimate that over 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country. Brazil, the country's southern neighbor, has accepted tens of thousands of these migrants.

While many Venezuelans have applied and received asylum in Brazil and other South American countries, the U.N. has yet to declare the fleeing Venezuelans refugees. Dany Bahar, an expert in the global economy and development at the Brookings Institution, says that the international community needs to wake up, and call the crisis what is is.

"There's no other description for [the Venezuelans fleeing] besides refugees," Bahar says. "For any economic indicator that you look at in Venezuela, it looks like a country in war: no access to basic medicine, lack of food, people dying from preventable diseases." Economic breakdown has seen hyperinflation rise to over 8,300 percent in Venezuela. Basic necessities—food, diapers, insulin medication—are unavailable to many.

Just as the Syrian refugee crisis tested European countries' tolerance for foreigners, the Venezuelan exodus has strained many of its surrounding nations. However, despite tensions in some border towns, Bahar says that South American countries—both people and governments—have been impressively accepting of Venezuelan migrants.

For instance, even as violence flared up on its border this month, the Brazilian government announced its intention to keep the border open. Ecuador opened "humanitarian corridors" and provided buses to Venezuelan migrants traveling through the country to seek asylum in Peru. José Alberto Duarte Garcia, a former resident of Caracas who fled to Brazil, says that his own transition has been smooth. Even though he's seen videos of Venezuelans being attacked in some border towns, Duarte says that, "For my part, I haven't been mistreated by the Brazilians."

Bahar says that most of the Latin American nations Venezuelans end up in are developing countries, and, as a result, government resources can be scarce. That is then putting enormous pressure on institutions like hospitals and schools. This is partly because integrating migrants at such a level is unprecedented in most Latin American countries. There is one historic exception, however: Venezuela. Ironically, in the last few decades, Venezuela accepted more migrants than any other South American country.

While many people fleeing dictatorships in countries like Chile and Argentina found refuge in Venezuela, the greatest number of migrants and refugees came from Colombia, where people escaped brutal sectarian violence by crossing the border into the once-prosperous nation to the east. Now, as people flee the other direction across the border, Colombia has done more than any other nation to aid Venezuelans. The country has accepted the majority of migrants: U.N. estimates put the number at 600,000 people, but the actual number could be well over one million. Colombia has also gone a long way to aid migrants within its borders: As Bahar explains, the government granted work permits to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who had entered the country illegally.

Even as nations like Colombia offer a sort of Latin American solidarity to Venezuelans, Bahar says that the onus is now on the larger international community to help stem the pain: "There is a lot of capacity from the international community to pledge significantly more money," he says. "But that will require other countries to face this as what it is: a refugee crisis."

This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.

As Venezuelans leave their collapsing home country in greater and greater numbers, experts warn that the current migrant crisis in South America is on track to rival the refugee crisis that rocked Europe in 2015. Recent United Nations reports estimate that over 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country. Brazil, the country's southern neighbor, has accepted tens of thousands of these migrants.

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