The coronavirus pandemic has produced profound impacts worldwide, but some populations have been hit hardest, including migrants. This article analyzes how the pandemic has deepened the vulnerability of Venezuelan migrants in South America, especially in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Colombia.
Since 2014, more than 5 million citizens have left Venezuela, mostly to neighboring countries. This scenario started due to the economic, political, supply and humanitarian crisis faced by the State. The government of Nicolás Maduro is accused of political persecution of the opposition and also of using the humanitarian crisis as a persecution tool. For those reasons, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recommended recognizing Venezuelans as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Both organizations also stated that recognition could be achieved based on the wider criteria of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.
Securitization of migration in South America
This migration flow provoked different government responses across South America. Firstly, none of the regional countries has recognized Venezuelans as refugees under the Cartagena Declaration. Only a few were recognized under the 1951 Convention and on a case-by-case basis. In July 2019, Brazil became the first country in South America – and only thus far – to recognize Venezuelan migrants as refugees based on the wider criteria of the Cartagena Declaration. Thus, the regularization of Venezuelans occurred mostly on an ad hoc basis.
The high intensity of the migration flow and the proliferation of xenophobic discourses led to the adoption of securitization measures in three of the region’s States. Chile was the first to restrict the entry of Venezuelans. In April 2018, Chile – which already required Venezuelans to present a passport to gain entry– began to impose the 'democratic responsibility visa' on citizens of this nationality. This measure led to an increase in the number of Venezuelans in Peru, as many of them, unable to enter Chile, were “stuck” at the border.
As a result, in April 2018, Peru started to require passports from Venezuelans, with the exception of asylum seekers. On June 2019, Peru adopted another security measure and began to require a humanitarian visa. The same situation happened in Ecuador after Peru's newly imposed measures: many Venezuelans were "stuck" at the Ecuador-Peru border. In July 2019, Ecuador also created a humanitarian visa, which was required upon entry and also became mandatory for the regularization of Venezuelans already in the country, but was only available to those who had entered legally.
Securitization measures do not reduce migration – but they do increase the vulnerability of migrants
Visa and passport requirements are “no entry” measures created by the securitization of migration. These measures aim to reduce immigration under the guise of national security [i]. In the Venezuelan case, passports have become increasingly difficult to obtain over the past few years. Even though most countries accept expired passports, many people were never able to obtain them in the first place. Visa requirements restrict regular migration even further, as the application process involves — in addition to a passport — tax payments and documents which are difficult to obtain, like criminal records.
The existing migration corridor, from Venezuela to Chile, has been securitized, with the exception of Colombia. It is important to highlight that Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, in addition to being transit countries, are also destination countries. As is well documented in the literature, securitization measures do not reduce migration – but they do increase the vulnerability of migrants. In light of the new security measures, they are at the mercy of "coyotes" and have to risk their lives in dangerous ways. Once at their destination, these migrants are considered "illegal" and have no access to government assistance. Moreover, their irregular status makes them susceptible to exploitative conditions from employers and tenants. Thus, they mostly establish themselves on the informal market.
How does COVID-19 affect Venezuelan refugees?
The coronavirus pandemic added another layer to the issue. Many Venezuelans who lived in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru started to go back to Venezuela. A situation that was already difficult became more dire: Many Venezuelans lost their income, their houses and were starving. This situation caused what Espinoza, Zapata and Gandini called “mobility in immobility”, which describes the continued migration flows amid borders closures to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The regularization of Venezuelans in the countries to which they have moved is directly linked to the social issue. It is only once they are regularized that they can obtain local documents, which allows them to search for formal jobs. In addition, only regularized migrants are able to apply for government assistance, such as cash transfer programs for families living in a situation of social vulnerability. Examples include “Bolsa Família” in Brazil; “Chile Solidario”; “Programa Nacional de Asistencia Solidaria” in Peru; “Famílias en Acción” in Colombia; and “Bono de Desarrollo Humano” in Ecuador.
In light of the pandemic, specific public policies need to be put in place to address the situation faced by migrants and refugees — regardless of legal status — to prevent their right from being further violated
Despite being available to all citizens of their countries, these aids are not granted indiscriminately. Thereby, many migrants cannot rely on those government programs. Furthermore, even those who qualify for aid find themselves in a difficult financial and social situation as the amount is not enough to cover all expenses. This population also has greater difficulty in accessing education and health services. In addition, they face numerous obstacles to getting a formal job, especially in Brazil, due to the language barrier. However, even formal work does not guarantee a stable income for families, a situation which has worsened sharply during the pandemic[ii] .
Brazil has not adopted securitization policies like the previously discussed countries and there is no news of widespread repatriation. But this does not mean that the situation of Venezuelans in the country is any easier. In big cities, where the cost of living is even higher, people are being evicted from their homes and facing food insecurity. Although the government has made emergency aid available to people in situation of vulnerability, as with the cash transfer programs, not everyone who needs it is able to receive it. Moreover, the crisis caused a rise in unemployment, further aggravating the vulnerability of these populations.
In this context, the solidarity of those helping migrants and refugees comes into play. Venezuelans first seek help within their community, a network of friends and churches that often donate food, clothing, furniture, among other items. Mostly linked to the Catholic church, NGOs also help refugees and asylum seekers.
However, fundraising campaigns are enough. In light of the pandemic, specific public policies need to be put in place to address the situation faced by migrants and refugees — regardless of legal status — to prevent their rights from being further violated.
[i] Gerard, A. (2014). The securitization of migration and refugee women. London: Routledge.
[ii] Jubilut, L. L. et al. (2020) Direitos Humanos e Covid-19: impactos em direitos e para grupos vulneráveis. Grupo de Pesquisa “Direitos Humanos e Vulnerabilidades” da Universidade Católica de Santos, Santos.