UN says refugee crisis overwhelms South America’s health and education systems

UN says refugee crisis overwhelms South America’s health and education systems

19/06 - 18:20 - More than 5m Venezuelans will have fled economic and political chaos to seek refuge abroad by the end of this year on current trends and the crisis is overwhelming education and health systems across South America, the UN official overseeing relief efforts said on Wednesday.

The exodus has accelerated dramatically over the past three years as shortages of food, water and fuel grip Venezuela, a once wealthy oil-exporting nation which has been reduced to destitution by economic mismanagement under the socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuelans filed more asylum claims last year than citizens of any other country including Syria and more than 10 per cent of the population has already left, according to a report from the UN refugee agency published earlier.

Eduardo Stein, the UNHCR’s special representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, said the crisis was unprecedented in a country not at war or suffering a major national disaster and called on the international community to step up support for the countries taking in those fleeing the Maduro regime.

“There is an unmeetable level of demand which has . . . totally superseded the capacity in the education and health systems,” he said in a telephone interview from Guatemala City. “Unless there is a stronger response from the international donor community, we foresee severe difficulties in the receiving countries.”

The largest group of Venezuelan refugees is staying in neighbouring Colombia (1.3m), while big populations have also sought shelter in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina. Mr Stein said that while the receiving countries had made extraordinary efforts to accommodate the newcomers, there had been a disturbing recent rise in cases of xenophobia.

The exodus from Venezuela has accelerated dramatically as daily life becomes an increasing struggle. In just seven months since November, the number of refugees and migrants increased by 1m and departures are continuing at an average rate of 5,000 a day. Recent spikes have hit as many as 100,000 over a three-day period, Mr Stein said.

The UNHCR described Venezuela in its report as “one of the biggest displacement crises in the world and the biggest exodus in the region’s recent history”.

Venezuelans made 341,800 new asylum claims in 2018, surpassing countries such as Syria and Afghanistan and accounting for more than one in five of all new asylum claims submitted worldwide.

The country’s difficulties have worsened this year as the US has tightened sanctions on gold and oil exports and the banking system, hoping to topple President Maduro and pave the way for a transition to free and fair elections.

The exodus from Venezuela contributed to a bleak worldwide picture where a record 70.8m people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations by the end of 2018, including 13.6m newly displaced during last year, the UNHCR said.

Of this number, this biggest single category were people displaced within their own countries (41.3m) while a record 25.9m were classified as refugees and another 3.5m as asylum-seekers.

More than two-thirds of all the refugees worldwide came from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. The UNHCR said the global number of refugees had almost doubled since 2012.

The refugee body said asylum procedures in Latin America had been overwhelmed by the Venezuela crisis, and to date only 21,000 Venezuelans have been recognised as refugees out of 460,000 who have sought asylum; 350,000 in 2018 alone.