WASHINGTON — The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is criminalizing, stigmatizing, and discriminating against Venezuelan nationals who seek to return home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the Organization of American States.
While an estimated 5.1 million Venezuelans have fled their country’s economic and political collapse since 2015, tens of thousands have begun coming home as the pandemic eliminates job prospects abroad. Many Venezuelan refugees and migrants do not have work authorization and were working in the informal sector across Latin America. They can no longer earn an income amid lockdown and quarantine requirements.
Unable to buy food and pay rent, and often lacking health care, many have been forced to return to their native country despite the pandemic and ongoing instability at home.
Approximately 105,000 refugees and migrants have returned to Venezuela from Colombia and 6,000 from Brazil, according to the report prepared by the Office of the OAS General Secretariat for the Venezuelan Migrant and Refugee Crisis. This migration has been hampered by what the report calls “intermittent and arbitrary” closures of the Colombian-Venezuelan border, which prevent Venezuelans from returning formally.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taxing Venezuela's collapsed health infrastructure, while humanitarian aid remains hampered by the country's political stalemate.
Maduro has accused returning Venezuelans of being “bioterrorists,” and government quarantine measures have seen returnees housed in jail cells. They have been subjected to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” the report says, and some are prevented from moving freely about the country. This has prevented some refugees and migrants from returning to their state of origin after crossing the border.
According to the Pan-American Health Organization, Venezuela has 54,350 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, and Latin America and the Caribbean is home to the largest caseload of any region of the world.
Concern over COVID-19 cases coming from Venezuela led Colombia to close its border with Venezuela abruptly in mid-March, but informal crossings continued. Later that month, Colombia opened a humanitarian corridor for Venezuelans seeking to return to their home country. Three more such corridors were opened, but irregular crossings continued because of restrictions on the Venezuelan side by Maduro’s government, which OAS considers to be illegitimate.
In June, Maduro announced that only 400 Venezuelans could return per day. Some who are caught crossing at informal points have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, the OAS report said.
Venezuelan border closures drive those returning to cross in more dangerous areas that are often infiltrated by illegal groups and armed gangs, according to the report. The irregular routes often have more difficult geographic conditions, which put lives at risk. The Maduro regime is also preventing humanitarian and repatriation flights from places like the Dominican Republic, where Venezuelans are left without work and no way to return home.
OAS called for treatment of Venezuelan nationals who return to improve, and requested that the international community “unite” to consider other humanitarian avenues that would protect Venezuelans who wish to return home.