More than 6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have been forced to flee our country. Second only to Syria, the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis is one of the largest displacement crises in modern history, and one of the worst humanitarian crises the hemisphere has ever seen. This year, we need to raise more visibility on the situation in Venezuela and galvanize an international response to support the Venezuelan refugees and migrants around the world.
Unlike the Syrian crisis, the Venezuelan refugee and migrant exodus occurred not due to protracted conflict, but due to the economic and social decimation of the lives of Venezuelans by the country’s leaders. Over 90% of Venezuelans have lived under the poverty line since 2017. Nevertheless, since there is no armed conflict, the international community struggles to categorize and effectively respond to the situation.
The messiness of migration patterns in Latin America is nothing new. My history exemplifies the complexity of the current situation, and contextualizes a longer narrative of migration in the region. I was born in Venezuela to Colombian parents, who left Colombia due to the ongoing civil war. In 2009, at the age of 18, I immigrated to Barranquilla, Colombia for medical school. As the situation improved in Colombia, it ultimately became impossible to return to Venezuela. I began to publicly advocate for those experiencing displacement, first through Venezuelans in Barranquilla, of which I am now Vice President, and then with Coalición por Venezuela, which I now lead.
While the distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” is often blurry in the Venezuelan context, the desperate situation of displaced Venezuelans is crystal clear. Venezuelan refugees and migrants face famine, grave impacts to our health and livelihoods, and other protection risks. The advent, and apparent permanence, of the COVID-19 pandemic has only fanned the flames of this fire.
A key struggle for the Venezuelan refugee and migrant community has been access to vaccines. Across Latin America, Venezuelan migrants struggle to receive shots because without documentation, they fail to meet the legal requirements at vaccination centers.
Even when host countries do allow migrants to get vaccines, the situation is confusing and rapidly changing. In Colombia, for example, undocumented immigrants initially did not have access to the vaccine. With 1 million of the 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia being undocumented this would have been a serious concern. Thankfully, in January, President Iván Duque reversed his stance. Now undocumented migrants in Colombia can get vaccines if they prove they have applied for Temporary Protective Status (TPS). However, there is still a barrier to access as TPS is only available for Venezuelans who arrived before January 2021, and it can be expensive and difficult to access for Venezuelans who are focused on feeding their families through informal economies in Colombia.
Because the situations of Venezuelan migrants and refugees vary greatly, it is imperative that organizations led by refugees and migrants become key players in the humanitarian response to this crisis. Our organization, Coalición por Venezuela, is active in over 20 countries across the Americas. It is composed of 81 organizations led by refugees and migrants from Venezuela. Our work focuses on promoting and defending the safe and inclusive regularization and integration of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in transit and host countries. As people who have experienced forced migration, and as people in direct contact with those currently experiencing forced migration in a wide variety of contexts, we have concrete, nuanced proposals to respond to the complex humanitarian emergency stemming from Venezuela.
Firstly, we need to fix the gaps to the regularization process. We are extremely grateful to the governments that have been willing to receive us, and we hope other countries across the region will follow suit. Nevertheless, gaps to the regularization process persist, keeping us vulnerable. We urge host countries to close these gaps between announcement and implementation.
Second, we call upon members of the Quito Process, the regional agreement in response to the Venezuelan crisis, to implement better complementary mechanisms for protection. Mechanisms such as the TPS in Colombia (which grants temporary protected legal status to Venezuelan migrants for ten years) and the visa process in Ecuador assist Venezuelan migrants, but as country-specific processes, they remain clunky and confusing to navigate for the refugees passing through different national contexts and the multinational organizations trying to help them. Under the Quito process, these mechanisms should be coordinated and regularized.
Finally, as the backbone to all of these responses, refugee and migrant leaders must be meaningfully included in all levels of the response to the Venezuelan emergency. This idea is not only supported by us, but by states and other political actors at all levels, including the United States, Europe Unión, and Canada. Not only is it the morally correct way to respond to a humanitarian crisis, it is also the intellectually sound way to do so. We are the ones most affected, the ones with the most up-to-date information, and the ones who most want to see an end to emergency migration situations. We hope that International Migrants Day, and World Refugee Day will one day be not a call to action for vulnerable people, but a celebration of the international cooperation that effectively responded to and mitigated their emergency situation.
The author is Juan Carlos Vilora Doria, President of Coalición por Venezuela, a partner of the R4V Regional Coordination Platform for Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees. He is also Vice President of Venezolanos en Barranquilla, an Ambassador of One Young World, and a Venezuela Diaspora Officer of the UN’s Major Group for Children and Youth. Juan Carlos was born and raised in Venezuela and currently lives in Barranquilla, Colombia.