In the fight against COVID-19, Latin America presents a set of important challenges: underfunded healthcare systems, largely informal labor markets, extreme poverty and vulnerability, and a human displacement crisis that has forced almost 5 million Venezuelans into exile.
Peru hosted close to 1 million Venezuelan citizens as it declared a State of Emergency on 16 March, closing international borders and imposing compulsory social isolation. This measure was extended four times, and lasted until 30 June (the lockdown is on-going in seven regions with high infection rates).
Undoubtedly, the state of emergency has had a negative impact on the Peruvian population, and especially on all those employed informally (the informal sector makes up over 70% of Peru’s economy). However, the burden carried by Venezuelan immigrants, or refugees, is even more severe due to their informal working conditions, precarious legal status and lack of social networks.
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In a recent study conducted at the Universidad del Pacífico, we found that 93% of our sample works informally. Furthermore, Peru initially gave out close to 500,000 temporary residence permits (PTP), however, these permits expire after a year, leaving Venezuelans with uncertain options for further regularization. Out of 500,000 asylum applications, only a minuscule fraction has been decided. What is worse is that less than 100,000 identification documents have been given out to Venezuelan asylum seekers and less than 1000 to refugees.
Excluding the migrant and refugee population from the country's public healthcare system, is not only discriminatory, but likely undermines public health efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19
We met Andrith, a former police officer, his partner Patricia, and their 3-year-old son at the border between Ecuador and Peru in April of 2019. Having walked and hitchhiked from Venezuela, they arrived with no passports and extremely limited financial resources. When the lockdown was declared, Andrith was selling bracelets on buses, and was completely taken by surprise: “It caught us off guard. We live from day to day. We had nothing saved up… These weeks have been very hard. There have been days, when we didn’t have anything to eat.”
Despite initial public support for the emergency measures, including the support of Venezuelans, high levels of poverty and vulnerability made compliance extremely difficult. According to a survey conducted by Equilibrium CenDe on 23 March, a week into the lockdown, 37% of Venezuelan migrants declared that their homes had run out of food.
According to an on-going tracking study on socio-economic integration of Venezuelan immigrants we are conducting at the Universidad del Pacífico, together with the Interamerican Development Bank (IADB), about 10% went hungry during the quarantine.
Furthermore, access to public services, including healthcare, is very limited and migrants lack social support networks. Just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, three out of four interviewees were concerned about not having access to the public healthcare system. Importantly, due to irregular or precarious legal status, 65% of our tracking cohort feared seeking medical assistance in the case of falling ill.
There have also been reports of Venezuelans who, when contacting local health facilities to request testing, were denied attention because they lacked a specific form of residency (carné de extranjería). Excluding the migrant and refugee population from the country's public healthcare system, is not only discriminatory, but likely undermines public health efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Government measures to provide social and economic support for Peruvian families in vulnerable conditions did not include immigrants and refugees
By the day, the despair of Venezuelan immigrants in Peru increases. Almost half of them now fear eviction, most of them with nowhere else to go to. According to our tracking-study, 95% have not received any institutional help since the beginning of the lock-down.
Government measures to provide social and economic support for Peruvian families in vulnerable conditions did not include immigrants and refugees. Rather, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, appealed to the financial support from international organizations to help migrants and refugees in Peru, but without any serious efforts to efficiently coordinate international help.
At the time of writing, and after having all their documents stolen, including the precarious certification of having initiated the asylum process in Peru, Andrith and Patricia had embarked on the dangerous journey back home. They decided to go just as they came, crossing Ecuador and Colombia , on foot and without any food or money – despite the lock-down, three militarized borders and the collapsing health system in Venezuela.
After six weeks they finally reached the border city of Cucuta in Colombia. Given Venezuela’s strict entry restrictions, even for nationals, it is not clear when they will be able to return home.
The COVID-19 crisis will likely constitute an additional factor of forced displacement from Venezuela and lead to new migratory flows across the region. Once borders reopen, it is crucial that countries facilitate legal access and residence to Venezuelan immigrants and asylum seekers.
In these unprecedented times, supporting migrants and refugees is not only a moral duty of Peru and other countries of destination, but also essential if we are to successfully mitigate the transmission of the virus.