Hyperinflation, food shortages, and rampant crime are driving Venezuelans to flee their country, exacerbating the crisis and posing challenges for surrounding countries seeking to accommodate the influx of refugees while securing their own borders against imported instability. Deemed the second-most violent country on earth that is not actively at war, Venezuela is unable to support its own civilians, who are desperately seeking a way out. The country is experiencing a currency crisis, with the Venezuelan currency losing 60% of its value in two months. Civilians are dying from starvation, unable to access basic necessities. The result is a mass exodus from a nation gripped by economic crisis and rampant insecurity.
Venezuelans fled the country throughout the presidency of Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), but the exodus has escalated under President Nicolas Maduro, and even includes “Chavistas” – Venezuelans who supported and admired President Chavez. Saddled with his predecessor’s dire economic and security legacy, but lacking Chavez’s charisma, Maduro is presiding over the collapse of the country. This has resulted in destabilizing effects on neighboring countries and an influx of refugees throughout the Americas. Venezuela’s unreliability as an international actor and trading partner even brought about its suspension from the Mercado Común del Sur (Mercosur) trading block on December 1, 2016.
Economic instability has serious security implications for Venezuela and its neighbors. On the international front, in recent years the regime has engaged in heavy-handed military tactics to seemingly distract the population from domestic problems. The most notable case is Venezuela escalating a long-standing border dispute almost to the point of war; in 2013 the Venezuelan navy detained an oil company vessel in waters that the international community considers to belong to Guyana, and began military exercises and grand international posturing after an oil discovery in the disputed area in 2015. The territory has been under dispute for a century, however the Venezuelan administration seized on the issue to focus the disgruntled population on apparent foreign threats to territorial sovereignty, distracting them from the growing domestic strife. While the gesture has failed to redirect domestic dissent, it illustrates the potential threat Venezuela poses to the surrounding region: a weak, unstable actor may lash out at its neighbors in a desperate attempt to shore up domestic support.
The food shortages and general instability are also fueling domestic crime. Venezuela’s crime rates are high and rising, although monitoring the trend is challenging due to unreliable crime statistics released by a country with unstable institutions and high levels of corruption, where the government has previously admitted to withholding crime statistics. Out of all countries not currently at war, Venezuela ranked as one of the most violent on earth in 2016, second only to El Salvador. The country’s homicide rate in 2016 was 91.7 per 100,000 residents, compared to less than 5 per 100,000 in the United States, and crime is expected to continue rising in 2017. Furthermore, corruption in the military – which is in charge of emergency food distribution – is leading to food trafficking, with military elements profiting by siphoning scarce food supplies into the black market. The humanitarian crisis prompted by a lack of basic necessities – including well-documented shortages of medicine and toilet paper – is inducing many to resort to criminality as they struggle to survive.
In February 2017, Peru began issuing temporary visas to Venezuelans to study and work in the country, announcing a migration policy to “build bridges” and “not walls” on humanitarian grounds.
As Venezuela’s heavily controlled economy failed to provide basic necessities to its citizens, more than 150,000 Venezuelans fled the country in 2016 – an estimated 60% increase from the previous year. While the initial exodus under Chavez was mostly comprised of wealthy Venezuelans who feared the government’s wealth redistribution policies, many of the current migrants are far poorer, predominantly civilians who are unable to support themselves and their families. Moreover, as is common in refugee crises, formerly successful Venezuelan professionals – including lawyers and engineers – are fleeing the country to work service jobs, notably in restaurants, in neighboring countries with greater stability.
Many Venezuelans are fleeing the country via professional people smugglers, enduring risky boat rides – despite, in many cases, being unable to swim – to seek refuge in Caribbean destinations where they anticipate being able to find food that is inaccessible in their home country. The closest island destinations, Aruba and Curaҫao, are strained to capacity supporting the influx and have imposed measures to keep migrants out.
Some countries have welcomed Venezuelan migrants. Peru has a substantial and growing Venezuelan expat population that is contributing to the country’s economy, while the Peruvian government pressures Venezuela to respect human rights and democracy. In February 2017, Peru began issuing temporary visas to Venezuelans to study and work in the country, announcing a migration policy to “build bridges” and “not walls” on humanitarian grounds.
On Venezuela’s southern border however, Brazil’s military has enhanced border security due to an influx of Venezuelan refugees and thousands more who have relocated to camp out near the border, awaiting a chance to flee.
Next door, Colombia is experiencing a desperate influx of Venezuelans, in stark contrast to the thousands of Colombians who fled to Venezuela during Colombia’s fifty-year civil war. When Venezuela opened its border with Colombia in 2016 after closing it over a cross-border crime dispute, 35,000 Venezuelans crowded over the border in the first two days to buy food and other necessities in Colombia, with several reportedly failing to return, instead seeking refuge in Colombia. Since the reopening of the borders, Venezuelans have continued to seek asylum in Colombia, as the latter’s security improves and Venezuela slides into an abyss.
Venezuelan refugees are encountering mixed responses in their destination countries. While many have found employment, some face a backlash, as reflected in a recent anti-Venezuelan campaign in Panama, in which locals suggest that Venezuelans are taking their jobs. If Latin American countries closed their borders to Venezuelan refugees, it would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis within Venezuela, with increasing levels of desperate civilians with nowhere else to go.
2.5 million Venezuelans are estimated to be living abroad, with hundreds more attempting to join them every day. Whereas Venezuela used to be a safe haven for refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring states, its worsening humanitarian crisis – characterized by rampant crime and severe food shortages – is leading civilians to repudiate the regime and seek refuge anywhere they can. They leave behind a country on the brink of collapse that poses security risks to its own citizens and the surrounding region.
Maria Robson is a former Security Intelligence Analyst for the energy industry and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in International Security and Political Science. Her areas of focus include the Americas, North and West Africa, and the Middle East.
Photo credit: Juan Pablo Guanipa