UNHCR staff verify and assist Venezuelan refugees, asylum-seekers and persons of concern at the recently opened Rondon I shelter in Boa Vista, Roraima in Brazil. Photo by: Reynesson Damasceno / UNHCR

WASHINGTON — The Venezuelan exodus into Colombia, Brazil, and throughout Latin America is comparable to the migrant and refugee crisis caused by the civil war in Syria, a United Nations Refugee Agency official said Tuesday.

“For UNHCR, this is one of our largest crises. This is on the scale of Syria,” said Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR’s regional representative for the United States and the Caribbean, in Washington, D.C. “In its modern history, Latin America has never experienced an exodus of this dimension.”

An estimated 1.6 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, and Reynolds said UNHCR expects an additional 1.8 million to leave this year.

Colombia has seen the largest influx, although official statistics are hard to come by due to the fluidity of the migration process and lack of legal status for many people. According to Colombia’s migration agency, 935,593 Venezuelans are in Colombia in 2018, nearly double the 470,000 recorded in 2017. Some figures put the number of Venezuelans in Colombia over 1 million. Brazil, according to Colombia’s data, is hosting 50,000 Venezuelans.

Smaller countries in the Caribbean have also taken in tens of thousands of Venezuelans, despite often lacking the infrastructure to support a major influx of refugees. According to Mark Schneider, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Trinidad, which can be seen from the Venezuelan coast, is hosting 40,000 migrants and refugees. Trinidad and other island countries such as Aruba and Curacao are hosting what he called “Lebanon percentages” of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. About 25 percent of people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees.

Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis — inflation is expected to hit 1 million percent this year — has caused widespread shortages of basic goods, food, and medicine. Some of the estimated 5,000 people who cross the border into Colombia each day are expected to do so just to acquire those basic goods before returning back home, while others stay in Colombia or move on to a third country.

Reynolds said that 330,000 Venezuelans have so far filed asylum claims in other countries, with 137,000 of those claims coming in the first half of 2018 alone. An estimated 585,000 refugees and migrants have benefited from other policies allowing them to stay in other countries, he said.

Before departing office in August, Colombia’s former President Juan Manuel Santos granted 440,000 Venezuelans in Colombia residency and work permits, allowing them to formally participate in the economy and better access basic services including health care and education.

“The Latin American region has a long tradition of solidarity and responsibility sharing to address forced displacement,” Reynolds said. “There are commendable efforts by governments throughout the region to provide protection to Venezuelan refugees and migrants.”

Reynolds called on regional governments to facilitate the process for Venezuelans looking to gain legal status because those without it are vulnerable to violence, extortion, exploitation, trafficking, sexual abuse, and discrimination. They are also vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and narco gangs. Reynolds encouraged regional countries to keep their borders open and to maintain the hospitality they have so far shown to Venezuelans.

UNHCR’s $146 million appeal to cover nine operations, with a focus on main host countries — Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and the Southern Caribbean — and interventions inside Venezuela is so far only 54 percent funded, Reynolds said.

“Given the continued increase of outflow and needs, far more resources will be needed in 2019,” Reynolds said.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.