Venezuela’s refugee crisis will exceed Syria’s; we must help

Editor's note:

This piece was adapted from an op-ed originally published by The Hill.

The next refugee crisis is not being driven by a violent war but by a socioeconomic disaster of magnitudes hardly seen before.

The economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is perhaps the worst that the hemisphere has seen in modern history: Without enough money to import food or basic medicine, most Venezuelans are going through severe hunger and are dying from preventable diseases.

The images of people searching for food in the garbage has become the new normal, and about three quarters of the population in the country has involuntarily lost nearly 20 lbs of weight. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates rose by 30 percent in 2016 alone.

This crisis is the product of enormous mismanagement by those in government, and nothing else. The unpopular, yet highly autocratic Venezuelan regime has made all the wrong policy choices for the sake of its own people.

At the same time, those in charge use their power to enrich themselves, destroying what was left of the country’s institutions so long as they can remain in power forever.

The economy has shrunk by more than 30 percent since the collapse of oil prices in 2014; the government has defaulted on its external debt; the exchange controls and price controls have destroyed the productive sector; the oil industry is collapsing and the purchasing power of Venezuelans has been completely wrecked by the rampant hyperinflation.

These infrahuman conditions are the determinants of the already ongoing refugee crisis originated from Venezuela. Some estimates suggest that there are already 4 million Venezuelans who have left the country in search of better living conditions: over 10 percent of the country’s population.

To keep proportions, bear in mind that the estimates of refugees who left Syria during the war account for about 5 million individuals. Considering that the situation on the ground is deteriorating by the minute and the lack of food and medicine in Venezuela will probably get much worse, the 4 million figure will only go up, and very rapidly.

As the political crisis in Venezuela has exacerbated, particularly since the protests during 2016, the international community has tried—with no success, thus far—to restore democracy in the country by using both sticks and carrots.

First, outsiders have tried by imposing financial sanctions on high-level government officials and by imposing restrictions to the issuance of more debt, as well as by promoting a dialogue between the government and the opposition that failed to bear any fruit.

The international community is aware of the worsening humanitarian crisis, but the government itself—ignoring all facts on the ground—has not sought external actors to provide humanitarian aid.

Under this scenario, there is something more that the international community can do: Prepare and implement a plan to deal with outgoing wave of Venezuelan refugees.

Neighboring Colombia, which is estimated to have received about 750,000 Venezuelans only in 2017—adding up to about 2 million since 2014—is putting together a plan to attend to migrants as they cross the border, but has also shown signs that it plans to tighten the border in order to control the flow of migrants.

Other countries in the region have reacted in different ways, but none of them have taken the initiative to provide a sustainable solution to the problem. It is time someone does.

It is up to the United Nations, together with the Organization of American States, to step up and recognize this problem as a refugee crisis so that the world can turn the proper attention to it and provide solutions.

Multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, together with donor countries—including the U.S.—could provide financial support to countries receiving these refugees.

In fact, in a recent event at The Brookings Institution, Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank, correctly asserted that those countries doing the public service of receiving refugees must be aided by the international community. The time to act on this is now.

There is plenty of research that supports that migrants can bring many positive benefits to the receiving economy. Ironically enough, a great example of this is Venezuela itself, which was the destination of tens of thousands of migrants coming from Europe and other Latin American countries looking for a better future.

These migrants—my grandparents being a prime example—were received by the Venezuelan people with open arms. Migrants then helped to build a modern country that, at some point, was considered to boast the most promising economy in the region.

It is time for the international community to step up and help other countries to do for Venezuela what Venezuela once did for them. These countries will enjoy the fruits that will bear from these migrants as they integrate into the local economies.