Read a Spanish verion of this article here.
In recent months, Venezuelan migrants have occupied a prominent role in the media and international political agenda as they travel by land, sea, and air in search of better living conditions. Some make risky walks of 16 hours a day along routes that exceed 2000 miles; many of them sleep on the streets; others risk their lives at sea or even as stowaways trying to sneak into an airplane. In response, Colombia is asking for economic aid to assist them, Peru has declared a health emergency at the border, and Brazil is mobilizing its troops. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis unprecedented in Latin America. There has been much speculation about this phenomenon. But what is its actual magnitude, and who is migrating? How much of the news coverage is propaganda, and how much reflects reality? Is it actually a new phenomenon? What are the political and economic motivations and processes underlying these events? In this piece, I attempt to answer some of these questions.
The UN estimates that 1,426,336 people migrated in 2017 alone. Between 2000 and 2017, there was a 41% increase in the number of legal migrants. International Office of Migration (IOM) figures are higher, with the first half of 2018 totaling 2,328,949, representing at least a 900% increase compared to 2015. This number represents approximately 7% of the Venezuelan population. Asylum and refugee claims have also risen sharply between 2014 and 2018, by at least 4.3, according to UNHCR data. And these figures only consider officially registered migrants, therefore underestimating the real dimension of the phenomenon, which is characterized by its informality and precariousness.
A Historic Migration
Until a few decades ago, Venezuela was characterized as an immigrant-receiving country. In the 1950s, strongman Marcos Pérez Jiménez encouraged the immigration of peasants and workers from Spain, Italy, and Portugal, who fled impoverished after World War II, to “modernize” and “whitewash” the country, and to "improve its race." In contrast, the immigration of neighbors from Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and the Antilles, who saw Venezuela as a land of opportunity, was stigmatized.
From 1973 onwards, the oil boom and the Southern Cone dictatorships triggered a large wave of immigration to Venezuela. The migration flow fluctuated according to currency devaluations, beginning with black Friday (1983) and the socioeconomic crisis that became the Caracazo (1989), both of which marked political and institutional breaking points in the country. Then came the first waves of Venezuelan emigrants. At the time, the typical migrant had a professional background, and many were descendants of the Europeans who arrived in the 1950s.
During the Chávez years there were three migratory waves: the first occurred between 2002 and 2003 after the attempted coup against President Chávez and the oil strike. The second occurred between 2006 and 2007 after the first reelection of President Chávez. The third and largest has occurred over the last eight years and has increased over time, especially since 2015. The first two maintained the profile of the late ‘80s-era migrant: professionals, entrepreneurs, and the middle- and upper-classes. The third has been more democratic, comprising the entire Venezuelan social structure, and therefore a greater number of people.
The End of Oil Rent Redistribution
Between 2008 and 2012, the official discourse celebrated Venezuela as among the happiest countries in the world. Such a characterization could not be made today. Socioeconomic conditions in Venezuela, a decline of economic, social, and cultural rights, and an erosion of civil and political rights are the predominant factors pushing the current migration. The institutional and political crisis that began in 2013, which is due to a diverse number of factors, is primarily economic. The country is undergoing a recession and a sustained reduction in oil production, both of which started at least three years before the financial sanctions imposed by the Trump government. This situation has led to a reduction in GDP, alongside hyperinflation, general product shortages, especially food and medicine, currency devaluation, reduced consumption capacity, widespread poverty, and the progressive deterioration in the provision of basic public services.
The situation worsened with the death of President Chávez in spring 2013, which led to a crisis of political leadership, as well as a loss of legitimacy and hegemony of the governing party. In December 2015, the opposition regained control of the legislature. The opposition’s victory unleashed a cycle in which public institutions refused to recognize each other’s legitimacy. This had several consequences: first, a wave of protests in 2017, which was harshly repressed, the imposition of an illegitimate National Constituent Assembly, which dismissed the Attorney General of the Republic, as well as regional and presidential elections that have been questioned and unrecognized by broad sectors. Finally, there are serious problems in terms of citizen security, with high homicide rates (62 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017) and institutional violence (deaths at the hands of the security forces account for 26% of homicides in the country) that only reproduce and increase a continuous cycle of structural violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the combination of these factors qualify migrants to obtain refugee status.
The Hidden Tolls of Exodus
As mentioned, most migration during the Chávez years was initially composed of skilled professionals, a profile maintained at least until 2014, though the country’s “brain drain” has far from ceased. By 2016, more than 883,000 professionals had left the country. 90% of these emigrants were university students, 40% had a master's degree, and 12% had a doctorate or postdoctoral degree. However, most emblematic is the case of doctors. Research suggests that an emigration rate of skilled workers between 5% and 10% is considered normal or even beneficial for the economic growth of the country of origin, while higher rates may negatively effect the country’s development. Unfortunately, skilled Venezuelan emigration far exceeds that limit.
In 2017, student desertion was 29% at the Central University of Venezuela, one of the highest rates in the last decade. The same is true for postgraduate studies. In the Faculty of Medicine and Sciences, 50% of the students have dropped out; the lack of supplies, medical equipment, and teachers prevents the possibility of ever graduating. In science tracks, the dropout rate increases to 80%. Universities barely receive between 15% and 18% of the budgets they need.
It is important to note that there is a pattern between political beliefs and emigration. A 2016 survey by Datincorp indicated a polarization in this regard: 71% of opponents want to leave the country, the same percentage of followers of the government preferred to stay. For some analysts, this could be an indication of the veiled existence of an unofficial policy of forced emigration.
More recently, the profile of migrants has become more democratic, encompassing all social classes, which will also affect their make-up, procedures, routes, and destinations. Initially, most migrants flew to the United States, Spain, Panama, and Colombia. Now an increasing number are crossing land borders with Colombia and Brazil, or others such as Ecuador, Peru, Chile, or Argentina. Others have risked their lives at sea trying to reach the Caribbean islands. A survey of Consultants 21 released in January of this year indicated that at least 33% of the popular sectors wish to live abroad, which would greatly weaken the country’s workforce. The migration of the lower-middle and working classes has generated a wave of negative reactions in receiving countries, which once laid red carpets for them when they were trained professionals or tourists eager to swipe their credit cards with preferential dollars, a common practice on the black market exchange rate. But the party of “exchange tourism” has since ended.
Xenophobia and discrimination
The migration of working class people is awakening anti-immigrant sentiment, despite the fact that they perform the jobs other people do not want to do, thus helping to maintain the status quo for those with comforts and privileges. As such, Venezuelans abroad become scapegoats in order to distract attention from the national problems of the recipient countries. In addition to being accused of making receiving countries more unsafe, Venezuelans are also accused of being the focus of all kinds of pathologies, both physical and social. In Colombia, Venezuelan women are blamed for the increase in infidelity and even the disintegration of families. When any negative event occurs, these countries have a perfect culprit: Venezuelans, presented as the incarnation of evil.
Such rhetoric has consequences: protests and aggressions against Venezuelan migrants have already been reported in Panama, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. Other cases include the existence of mass graves containing the remains of migrants, the documented lynching of a Venezuelan in Brazil, and the murders of at least 18 Venezuelan women abroad between 2017 and so far in 2018. According to Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), it is becoming harder for Venezuelans to access visas and obtain asylum status.
For its part, the Venezuelan government’s official discourse has denied and mischaracterized the migration wave. They have described it as a “campaign against the country,” and “fake news.” They point to its migrants as a part of the stateless bourgeoisie, made up of rich or middle-class people, the children of European migrants, who are being tricked by the political opposition to leave, but end up “cleaning toilets,” or taking large sums of money out of the country. The state has refused to recognize the causes that motivate such an exodus. Nor do they recognize that the very class their political projects seeks to do away with, the poor and the excluded, are also leaving the country. On the one hand, they seek to trivialize what is happening; on the other, they discredit those who have decided to emigrate. As with other national problems, the government's denialist and justifying discourse on Venezuelan emigration has become the norm in recent years.
More recently, facing an undeniable international problem this situation has caused, the government has responded by vindicating old national xenophobic discourses, claiming that it has spent large sums of money on social policies for Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian immigrants, for which they even demand compensation. As its latest propagandistic resource it has created the “Plan Vuelta a la Patria” to facilitate the return of Venezuelans to the country, fueled in the wake of attacks against Venezuelan migrants in Roraima, Brazil in late August. However, this incipient plan will make no significant difference, since it does not address the causes of migration.
Profiting Off Crisis
Many profit from the exploitation and exclusion of basic needs. The current migration wave from Venezuela has both political and economic functions. Politically, governments of the receiving countries have scapegoats with which to divert attention from their respective national agendas and problems. For the Venezuelan government it is also politically profitable, because it reduces the number of opposition voters. In addition, migration serves as an escape valve from social tension. On the other hand, it creates a space to attract huge international resources for host governments that serve as hosts—at least 136 million dollars since the end of 2016 from the EU and the United States. Venezuela has also announced it will ask the UN for $500 million to repatriate Venezuelans, without losing sight of the possibility of being able to make use of remittances.
Of course, there are also business opportunities, with bureaucrats of different levels charging hundreds and thousands of dollars for the formalization of any necessary documents for migrants. The more difficulties, obstacles, and delays these processes have, the more lucrative the business becomes. Trafficking networks also view this as an opportunity to exploit those who are increasingly vulnerable, exposed to labor exploitation, sexual exploitation and in general to violence, discrimination, and xenophobia.
If receiving countries fail to adopt integration policies for the current wave of migrants, they will be condemning them to circuits of exclusion and illegality, which could in turn increase their internal political and institutional problems. Their governments must take into account the recommendations recently issued by UNHCR, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and HRW.
The Venezuelan government, for its part, must recognize the situation, which means protecting the rights of its fellow citizens inside and outside the country, including granting them basic identity documents to allow them to travel legally. Venezuelan migrants are doubly invisible to their government—first because of the structural conditions that have forced them to emigrate, and second when they are not recognized after their departure.
In the meantime, we need to think creatively about how we can support Venezuelan society. The causes that motivate this flight do not have prompt or magic solutions. We need to find ways for the country and its people to stay connected, to weave networks and build bridges between those who have left and those who remain. Beyond economic, it is also vital to seek other kinds of exchanges: through knowledge, information, technical skills, and shared spaces for working together. We must find alternatives in these hard times we are living. Bringing together this multiplicity of experiences is necessary for the reconstruction of the country.
Keymer Ávila is a Researcher at the Institute of Criminal Sciences and Professor of Criminology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He is a Collaborator of the Observatory of the Penal System and Human Rights of the University of Barcelona. Among his lines of research are: Penal Systems, dynamic dimension (security, police, criminal investigation, legislation, media) and static dimension (theories, ideologies and punitive rationalities). He has published several academic articles on these subjects.
Translated by Laura Peñaranda Currie.