Venezuelan refugees and their receiving communities need funding, not sympathy

February 2021 update

Venezuelan migrants react when members of the Bolivarian National Guard (not pictured) try to stop them on their way to the border between Venezuela and Colombia, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in San Cristobal, Venezuela October 12, 2020. Picture taken October 12, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

In late 2019, we released numbers that continue to make headlines today: The Venezuelan refugee crisis was then the most underfunded in modern history.

That reality still continues up until today, without much change.

The number of Venezuelan refugees in the world has continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace, potentially because of the restrictions on human mobility imposed by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since the end of 2019, about 700,000 more Venezuelans have fled the country, reaching a total of 5.3 million people by the end of 2020. If we consider 2015 as the first year of the Venezuelan mass exodus, the magnitude is remarkably similar to the number of Syrian refugees by 2016 (5.5 million), five years after the beginning of the Syrian crisis (see Figure 1).

Refugee population stock from start of conflict

Yet, despite the remarkable similarity in terms of both magnitude and evolution between these two groups of refugees (Syrians and Venezuelans), there continues to be a massive gap when it comes to funding from the international community to assist the receiving countries.

In the case of Syria, as Figure 2 shows, with updated figures as of year-end 2020, there has been over $20.8 billion of funding (in total) since the beginning of the exodus. In the case of Venezuela, by 2020, the number was only $1.4 billion—a much smaller number despite the similarity in the number of refugees. As another point of comparison, we find that international assistance to the 2.3 million refugees from South Sudan totals $3.2 billion.

Cumulative funding since start of conflict

These numbers show that the trends we highlighted earlier continue. Based on the figures for 2020, total funding per refugee amounts to $3,150 per Syrian, $1,390 per South Sudanese, and just $265 per Venezuelan. In other words, funding for the Syrian refugees has been over 10 times larger than for Venezuelans, in per capita terms. Even if we generously assume that the U.N. appeal for 2021 is fully met, the total amount of funding for the Venezuelan refugee crisis would reach $3 billion, which translates into less than $600 per person. Even in the best-case scenario, the Venezuelan refugee crisis will remain severely underfunded.

The lack of funding for the Venezuelan refugees and the countries that are hosting them has received quite a bit of attention, but it has not received what it needs: resources with few or no strings attached. Out of the $2.79 billion in assistance pledged in May of 2020, only about $650 million to $700 million were actually grants (see Figure 2). The rest of the funds are in the form of loans from either the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank. Yet, despite the lack of funding, many receiving countries in the region have continued to teach a lesson to the world by maintaining their broadly welcoming stance toward Venezuelans. Peru, despite having put some entrance hurdles in place at border crossings, has essentially granted a two-year temporary visa and regular migratory status to Venezuelans living there and is planning to roll out a second phase that will probably reach the entirety of the undocumented Venezuelan immigrants in the country. Brazil and Mexico, albeit hosting a much smaller number of Venezuelans than other countries, have essentially given them refugee status—implicitly implementing the Declaration of Cartagena of 1984 that recognizes refugees as those fleeing because of massive violations of human rights.

While the Venezuelan refugees and their hosting countries could use a bit more of our sympathy, what they really need is for the world to step up and invest in them, in the hosting communities, and in their inseparable future.

Colombia—which hosts the largest Venezuelan diaspora of nearly 2 million people—stands out among all regional hosts. In February 2021, the Colombian government announced a plan to provide a 10-year renewable regular migratory status to 1.7 million Venezuelans, most of them undocumented, living in the country. This is perhaps the most generous amnesty program to undocumented immigrants in modern history. This was no surprise to those who follow Colombia closely. In the past, it had taken several generous steps to facilitate the integration of Venezuelan immigrants. In 2018, it announced a massive amnesty program to provide a two-year regular migratory status to about half-a-million undocumented Venezuelans present in the country at the time. In 2019, it provided Colombian citizenship to nearly 30,000 children of Venezuelan refugees who had been born in Colombia without a nationality (unlike the U.S., in many countries just being born within their jurisdictions doesn’t confer citizenship automatically). Colombia has also rolled out several types of short-term visas to Venezuelans that entered the country “legally,” giving them the right to stay and work and access social services. It is unprecedented.

But some other countries have not lived up to these standards. Chile, for instance, despite having created an exclusive humanitarian visa for Venezuelans early on, has recently doubled down on deportations of undocumented immigrants looking for refuge in that country. Trinidad and Tobago denied entry to Venezuelans at the expense of endangering their lives: This resulted in a tragedy where a dozen immigrants, included children, died on the journey back.

While we are yet to see a unified framework in the region to deal with Venezuelan refugees along the lines of what was suggested by the Organization of American States (OAS), we hope that more countries will follow Colombia’s example. It is not only a matter of humanity, but of smart policymaking. Colombia understands that integrating immigrants and refugees into local communities and the labor force will bring tremendous benefits to its economy, as we have argued before.

To achieve this, however, the countries of the region need a massive influx of funding from the international community. This funding is not only required for humanitarian needs, of which there are many, but also for investment in local communities and businesses that require infrastructure upgrades and access to credit to absorb and integrate the immigrants and refugees into the formal labor force. We acknowledge this might be even more difficult to achieve during a global recession, but that doesn’t change the reality. The numbers speak for themselves. And while the Venezuelan refugees and their hosting countries could use a bit more of our sympathy, what they really need is for the world to step up and invest in them, in the hosting communities, and in their inseparable future.