Venezuela’s refugee crisis needs a proper response
Why is such a large and serious humanitarian crisis drawing such a miserly international response? Refugee emergencies in Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan all triggered substantial aid pledges from donor nations. By contrast, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, one of the largest in modern history, remains desperately underfunded.
The seriousness of the situation is not in dispute. Around 4.8m Venezuelans had fled their country as of early December and the exodus is expected to exceed 6.5m by the end of 2020, according to the UN, putting it on the same scale of displacement as Syria. The Venezuelan refugees are escaping hunger, repression and disease, all of which have reached intolerable levels under the brutal revolutionary socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro.
More than 21 per cent of the population are malnourished and over 70 per cent of Venezuelan children lack access to regular education, according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Years of Chavista government mismanagement have transformed one of the world’s wealthiest oil nations into one of its biggest peacetime economic collapses. Venezuela’s output has shrunk by two-thirds since 2013, causing shortages of fuel, essential medicines and constant interruptions to electricity and water supplies. The Maduro regime has responded by tightening the screws on dissent. US sanctions on the oil industry have only worsened the country’s economic predicament.
Most of the burden of caring for Venezuela’s refugees has fallen on other Latin American nations. Neighbouring Colombia deserves special praise for its courageous response to the 1.6m Venezuelans who now live there. Ecuador and Peru, countries with social problems of their own, have sheltered 1.2m between them. Chile and Argentina have together taken in half a million.
All these nations have received far less help than they deserve from the international community. Only just over half of 2019’s total Venezuelan humanitarian aid requirement of $738m had been funded with two weeks of the year left to run, according to UN figures. An international solidarity conference on Venezuela in Brussels in October elicited pledges of €120m from donor nations, but most were re-announcements of existing promises. Four years into the crisis, the international community has spent just $580m on assistance, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. By comparison, donors pledged $7.4bn to help Syrian refugees in the first four years of that emergency.
For 2020, the Venezuelan crisis shows no signs of improving. The Maduro government is clinging to power. There has been no visible progress towards a negotiated political settlement. Large numbers continue to leave and the strain on regional host nations is rising. The attendant risks of instability deserve attention: several of the Andean countries suffered violent mass protests last year and while these were not directly related to the Venezuelan influx, continued economic difficulties in host nations could easily provoke xenophobia and division.
The UN has set a target of $1.35bn needed for its Venezuelan refugee and migrant response plan in 2020. Not all of it must come from the international community; a group of Venezuelan émigrés have proposed a humanitarian oil sales programme conducted under UN auspices (but learning governance lessons from a similar exercise during the 1990s to help Iraq) as a possible source of funds. Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has long ceased to be a regional affair. It deserves a rapid global response proportionate to its size and international importance.