Sanj Srikanthan / Nov 2019
While migrants entering the EU attract most of the media attention in Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic millions of Venezuelans are making their journey to the neighboring countries that remain the only lifelines for the people whose lives have been dominated by hunger, instability and violence. At the end of October in Brussels the international community gathered to debate measures for addressing this crisis, which will only deepen as conditions continue to deteriorate in Venezuela.
The unprecedented collapse of Venezuela’s economy has already spurred some 4.5 million people - almost the population of Ireland - to leave since 2015. We know from our work in Colombia - already hosting over 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants - providing health care, cash, support and counselling for women and children, that humanitarian needs are continuing to grow.
There is no end in sight to the crisis. Displacement of Venezuelans is on track to surpass the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis, but the international support and attention devoted thereto is woefully lacking. From Europe’s perspective, it is a seemingly remote emergency taking place far away from its borders.
But while the vast majority of Venezuelans in need of international protection stay in neighbouring countries, the number of people seeking political asylum in the European Union is currently on the rise again, driven by Venezuelan refugees. In the first four months of 2019, Europe saw over 14,000 asylum-seekers from crisis-stricken Venezuela among the total of 200,000 asylum applications. While the number itself might is low compared to the number of refugees hosted by other regions, it amounts to a 121% increase on the same period of the previous year. This puts Venezuelans as the second largest group of asylum-seekers in the EU, placing the country between Syria and Afghanistan.
The 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants as well as the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, represented a rhetorical agreement by donors to coordinate long-term solutions and greater responsibility sharing in a wake of protracted crises. Venezuela is a real-time test of these commitments - and the international community is failing.
The Solidarity Conference was an important first step to leverage financing for policy improvements across the region. International donors should need no reminder that refugee-friendly policies can protect displaced Venezuelans and their host communities today, and help turn the crisis into a development opportunity tomorrow. Securing sustained and coordinated international support will only be possible if the EU and other major donors commit to key priorities to effectively tackle the scale of the Venezuelan displacement.
First, multi-year funding is urgently needed to ensure this crisis gets the required regional response. Lessons should be learnt from the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, where two years on, an effective response is still hindered by policy barriers and a short-term vision that focuses on delivering basic and lifesaving humanitarian assistance, instead of a longer term approach to promote the well-being of refugees. Donors should also pledge to meet the full commitments of the regional response plan: in its first year, the Venezuelan plan is only 52 percent funded with just over two months remaining. Disappointingly, the Solidarity conference did not witness many new financial commitments: a follow up with increased pledges is urgently needed to meet the growing needs.
Secondly, donors should support policies to promote refugee and migrant self-sufficiency in host communities to turn Venezuelan displacement into a development opportunity. Displaced Venezuelans invariably have few assets, little money, and no immediate and safe opportunities to earn income. As a result, many individuals seek employment in the informal sectors, increasing their exposure to violence, exploitation and other negative coping strategies. If we support receiving countries to adapt to the new realities of intra-regional migration, we still have time to both preserve social stability and foster new sources of opportunity and growth for people in the region.
Thirdly, as the world’s leading humanitarian donor, respected diplomatic power and home to millions of refugees and asylum-seekers, the EU is uniquely placed to provide a truly game-changing and rules-based response to both the causes and consequences of protracted crises. To this end, it can truly leverage its power for coordinated diplomatic engagement on the regional response to Venezuelan crisis.
Unlike many countries in the northern hemisphere, which have been closing their doors to refugees and migrants, Venezuela’s neighbors have shown relative welcome. But, there are already cracks that will deepen in the absence of adequate and context-appropriate financial support and diplomatic effort to increase burden-sharing and regionalise the response.
The international community must not abandon Venezuela's neighbors, but rather provide financial and diplomatic support commensurate with a truly regional response to this crisis. We face the same recipe for disaster Europe has faced once before: untended humanitarian crisis pushing its neighbors and beyond into political crisis. It is a mistake the international community cannot afford to make again.