Displaced and Insecure: Understanding the Exodus and Its Effects

From brain drain to mental health issues, the mass migration of millions of Venezuelans has far-reaching impacts at home and abroad.

March 11, 2022

People walk to Colombia after leaving Venezuela on the Simón Bolívar Bridge, April 3, 2019. (UNHCR / Vincent Tremeau)

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Venezuela’s migrant crisis is often compared to Syria, but without the civil war. With more than 6 million Venezuelans living abroad, the mass exodus is considered a forced displacement caused by the humanitarian crisis afflicting the country. The increased number of migrants in recent years highlights not only a worsening situation at home, but also the vulnerability of a population leaving without resources or preparation, facing an uncertain future in a hostile region.

To explore this topic, I spoke with Yorelis Acosta, a clinical and social psychologist and head of the sociopolitical area of the Center for Development Studies (CENDES) at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). Among her lines of research is the issue of Venezuelan migration, and she has contributed important analyses on themes ranging from socioeconomic conditions to the emotional profile of Venezuelan migrants.

Venezuelan migration is no doubt a concerning topic. And it is challenging to navigate in a context of a political debate dominated by elite interests, which translates into the abandonment of many Venezuelans who are struggling to survive a humanitarian catastrophe. Taking stock is overwhelming. However, we believe that this complex situation is one that we in the field of social sciences cannot ignore. Our conversation, which took place over Zoom, has been edited for length and clarity.

María Isabel Puerta Riera: Broadly speaking, Yorelis, what is the historical timeline of Venezuelan migration? Have there been different catalysts?

Yorelis Acosta: Yes. According to Venezuelan researchers who have been working on the Venezuelan migration phenomenon for decades—I’m referring to Iván de la Vega and Claudia Vargas of the Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB) and Tomás Páez of UCV—there are at least three phases that mark the evolution of this pattern of Venezuelan movement. And these phases, by definition, are not mutually exclusive, because there is some overlap.

The main characteristics of the first movement or exodus, which went from the 1980s until 2000, is the flight of highly trained professionals including scientists, technicians, and academics. Afterwards, a second phase, beginning this century and ending in 2013, also saw an exodus of professionals, experts, and skilled youth. From 2014 to today, we can speak of a mixed migration with the flight of both intellectual capital and workers.

In Venezuela’s case, this migratory process is directly related to negative circumstances. And the most direct societal consequences are the loss of purchasing power, unemployment, and personal and legal insecurity. This century, an idea began to take hold—a very negative belief for us Venezuelans and for the country—that “I have to leave the country” to improve my living conditions, to escape poverty and long lines, to get food, medicine, and basic items, and to have better access to health, education, and sustenance.

In the 21st century, the number of Venezuelan migrants abroad is much greater, and there many challenges to identifying the specific number and where they are. We must highlight the results of the National Survey on Living Conditions (ENCOVI), which is project by academics and researchers from three universities in response to the lack of transparency or difficulty in accessing official data in Venezuela. Researchers from various fields at the USB, UCV, and Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) have joined forces since 2014 to produce information that should be available via official channels.

In the 2021 ENCOVI, one of the most powerful findings was that it confirmed Venezuelans’ increasing poverty rates, declining incomes, and employment loss or worsening work conditions. This report states that 94.2 percent of Venezuelans experience some level of food insecurity and 24.5 percent go hungry. Poverty increased to 94.5 percent, and extreme poverty rose to 76.6 percent. You can see in these numbers the impact of the pandemic. Because we were already dealing with a longstanding crisis, which is compounded by the pandemic. So these findings are very bad for Venezuelans.

MIPR: Considering this latest survey data from the 2021 ENCOVI, let’s talk about varying profiles of Venezuelan migration.

YA: Without a doubt, the migration phenomenon is very dynamic, and the demographic shift in who is leaving is important. In the last two decades, these characteristics have varied a lot. I already noted how, in the first phase, mainly professionals were departing. And now, younger and younger professionals are leaving. As a psychologist, I am troubled by the appearance in the consciousness of the youngest students the idea that “I want to graduate so I can leave.” That is young peoples’ dream in Venezuela. This idea started to take shape this decade. “I’ll graduate and I’ll leave.”

The Venezuelan state invested a lot in professionals. It granted scholarships in the 1970s and 1980s when the dream was, “I want a scholarship to get an education and return to work in Venezuela.” Now youths have left their university studies unfinished. And some who graduate don’t even wait for their graduation ceremony because if they are highly qualified then they are already connected to other places and get taken away.

In the first phase, highly qualified Venezuelans were very well positioned abroad. They left with a plan and possibly even a job offer. Now, opportunities are fewer because places are saturated, not just with Venezuelans, but also because of the economic crisis reducing job opportunities. We should also note that migrants in the first phase also had more economic power, more social relationships, and more emotional strength. This made positioning themselves easier. These three elements affect migration. Having economic power means you have savings to withstand an initial stage and start to develop new social relations while also having more intellectual power—you have a work plan and you’ve researched your destination. Migrants in this first phase managed to work in their area of expertise or education.

This is not the case with the most recent phase. You may leave with a degree, but you know that you’re going to have to work in other professions before being able to land in your field, if you’re lucky. These past 10 years, the lines have blurred between these people who are highly qualified and have many relationships and those who are less qualified, have fewer relationships, less education, and come from a lower socioeconomic background. If we think about the pyramid of the Venezuelan social structure, we lost the tip, and then later the upper-middle and middle classes, and finally the poorest classes and the most vulnerable, have joined this out migration.

The most vulnerable initially leave through areas like the Colombia-Venezuela border, mainly departing through the north, near Santander in the state of Táchira. Data shows that 80 percent of Venezuelans leaving take that route. Some aim to travel across Latin America on foot, but there are also middle-class individuals who take buses or a plane to reach their destinations.

We see it in the research that I’ve done at the border. There are people who leave with a small tricolored bag. For Venezuelans, we know that bag has a particular meaning. It is a yellow, red, and blue backpack given to the poorest and, generally speaking, the most loyal government supporters. And it would be filled with school supplies. The poorest people don’t have suitcases; they leave with a tricolored bag. Those are the ones who go on foot.

Colombia has studied Venezuela migration and is aware that there’s a population that will stay in the country; there’s a population that’s in transit crossing the country; and there’s a commuter population at the border that may live in Venezuela but work in Colombia.

Up until 2017, the United States was the leading migration destination. This is important because Venezuela used to receive migrants from many places; in the last century it received large numbers of people from Portugal, Spain, and Italy. These are still receiving countries of Venezuelans because there is also a return of the children of migrants. But the United States was until 2017 the leading destination for Venezuelan migrants. Since then, Colombia has taken over as the leading receiver followed by Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Panama.

After leaving Venezuela, families sit on the sidewalk in front of a Red Cross help center in C cuta, Colombia, April 3, 2019. Some travel with a tricolored backpack. (UNHCR / Vincent Tremeau)

MIPR: You have done fieldwork at the border with Colombia and in Peru. Given your research and the current projections for economic improvement in the country, what do you see ahead for the migration situation in Venezuela? Do you think we’ll continue to see a trend where every time there is a crisis or election, there will be a spike in migrants?

YA: This past year, two areas of study have kept me very busy. Of course, one is monitoring the border, above all the Colombia-Venezuela border, which is most accessible. Because we also must note that often even when you want to launch a big investigation involving lots of different locations and participants, there aren’t sufficient resources; the Venezuelan academy is facing quite a significant crisis. Along with two professors, Andrés Cañizales of UCAB and Mariela Torrealba of UCV, we were able to carry out a study on border trends from January to July 2021.

In this region, we saw the phenomenon of return, which shows that at least 130,000 Venezuelans returned from other parts of South America on foot. Because the pandemic added another factor: economic recession. Latin America has its problems. Every country has challenges, and the pandemic made them evident. So we had Venezuelans in all of South America who wound up without work. This is a vulnerable population, an undocumented population. For the Venezuelans who leave and don’t bring a passport, for example, how do they enter a country? They’re going to enter illegally and work illegally, too. It puts them in a very vulnerable situation and that’s why it’s hard to count how many Venezuelans are leaving, whether through backtrails or formal checkpoints.

There has also been a process of internal movement. People from the provinces flocked to the cities in search of better living conditions. But ultimately, they end up leaving. So this process of internal movement is followed by external movement. This restructured society in Venezuela. Last year, family reunification also emerged as a reason to leave. We’ve already seen so many years of movement and with so many people abroad, those who left first end up taking their siblings, so we see families reuniting.

MIPR: Aside from the internal and external impact you just described, are there any other important economic and social effects of Venezuelan migration, whether internally or throughout Latin America?

YA: I would like to point out that when we talk about the effects of Venezuelan migration, that includes the loss of human and intellectual capital. It’s one of our great losses in these past 20 years—there are close to 100,000 professionals who have left the country. There are universities where a significant percentage of their professors have left, as well as middle-class teachers.

This brings not only a great loss of Venezuelan intellectual capital, but also, internally, the deterioration of the Venezuelan education system, because we have no teachers. There are some policies to train people very quickly, which is never going to compensate for the training that professionals had in decades past. It is estimated that it takes 25 to 30 years to train a doctor from primary school through to residency completion. Recovering that intellectual capital, or rebuilding the capital that we lost, is going to be costly. People with specific skills in research, art, music, sports—they’ve all left.

The most conservative figures from mid-2021 speak of 5.6 million Venezuelans abroad, of whom 4.6 are in Latin America. In South America, Colombia has 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants, but if we add those unaccounted for—those who are entering or in transit—Colombia has more than 2 million Venezuelans. Peru has more than a million Venezuelans. Chile has half a million Venezuelans. Ecuador has half a million Venezuelans. Brazil has 300,000, Argentina 200,000, and Dominican Republic 120,000.

So, these Latin American countries, which already have their own problems, are receiving a migrant population that has an economic impact, a cultural impact, and a labor impact. The impacts of this migration include an important loss for Venezuela and, for receiving countries, pressure in multiple dimensions.    

MIPR: I would like to turn to your work in the field of mental health. Can you share some of your observations or findings?

YA: As I was saying, two areas have kept me very busy this past year. The first is the migration trends at the border and the profile of Venezuelans who leave. The other is the issue of mental health of those here in the country and those who have left. Recently, a study was released in the United States that found that one in three Venezuelans struggles with mental health. How do we explain this? Easily.

Experiencing uncontrolled hyperinflation as we have in the last five years, as well as poor conditions, few work opportunities, worthless wages—this creates a harmful cycle that destroys your life and your peace of mind. Venezuelans are leaving. The most recent cohort, the Venezuelans who have left in the last 10 years, leave after struggling to survive in a country in crisis—on top of which they are adding migration.

In terms of mental health, migrants leave in a poor emotional state. After trying everything, their solution is to leave. They leave walking, by bus, or by boat in less well-known routes, such as through illegal networks that transport Venezuelans from the coast of Falcón to Curaçao and Aruba or from Guïria to Trinidad.

So the mental health of Venezuelans is very damaged. And for all we have lost in terms of health, in return, we now have psychosocial illnesses, anxiety as a general emotional state, physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion. If you add to this extreme hardship and a very high percentage of people who do not have enough to eat—we have lost both intellectual and physical capacity. So this psychosocial dimension should concern us.

MIPR: Should we see Venezuelan migration solely as a consequence of the collapse of Venezuelan democracy and the country as a whole? Because you are talking about the economic and social context in addition to the political context.

YA: It’s not just the political context. I consider economic factors essential. And I should mention and uplift psychosocial factors and solutions to help our people, to repair the lived social damage generated by these times.

I think it’s important to ask ourselves how the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, after receiving historic levels of income, is suffering a crisis such as this. It is not only an economic or political crisis, as you said. There is an obvious deterioration of the state at all levels.

State infrastructure and social welfare have collapsed, which has led researchers to define this as a complex humanitarian crisis. In Venezuela, there is no war, there are no civil conflicts. But there is a collapse of life itself that leads to serious human rights violations and threats to life if you stay here, if you don’t have a job that can provide for your basic necessities. There are people who have been forced to leave. It’s a country that pushes many to look for a better future. And in this better future, maybe they aren’t finding that it’s really any better. It’s a total emergency, a total humanitarian crisis.

Maria Isabel Puerta Riera is a political scientist and professor of political science at Valencia College, Florida. She was associate professor at the Universidad de Carabobo, Venezuela, from 2000 to 2018.

Yorelis Acosta is a social and clinical psychologist and head of the Center for Development Studies’ (CENDES) sociopolitical area at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.

Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

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