Venezuela is in the throes of a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. The incompetent, repressive policies of President Nicolás Maduro have propelled Venezuela into a downward spiral, and political turmoil is deepening the chaotic situation in the country. The economic and humanitarian crises, coupled with rising authoritarianism, have forced many Venezuelans to flee. As the conditions worsen in the oil-rich country, the number of Venezuelans flowing into neighboring countries continues to grow. As of February, more than four million Venezuelans—over 10 percent of the country’s population—have fled the country. Colombia alone is estimated to be hosting more than two million Venezuelans.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis has become the latest in a string of massive dislocations of populations across the world. This massive exodus of Venezuelans is reminiscent of the Syrian refugee crisis, not just because of its massive outward flow, but also because of its likely consequences in host countries. In this respect, the risks and challenges that Europe and neighboring countries of Syria have faced during the refugee crisis provide some important lessons for Latin America as it confronts the Venezuelan migration crisis.
The Syrian refugee crisis and Europe
Bashar al-Assad’s regime has ruthlessly targeted millions of civilians, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The civil war has killed thousands of Syrian citizens, displaced half of the population, and caused millions to flee the country. The burden of the exodus has largely fallen on countries bordering Syria—Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan—but it’s also had a profound political effect in Europe.
The most important problem of the Syrian refugee crisis has been the misinterpretation of the Syrian civil war by European countries and Syria’s neighbors. Many governments have failed to foresee the longevity of the conflict. It was wrongly assumed that the Assad regime would be shortly overthrown and the war would quickly die down. Under this idealistic scenario, Syrians would return to their home after an Arab Spring-like regime change.
Unfortunately since the crisis started, Syrian refugees have been held in temporary refugee camps in neighboring countries, many of which have been open for several years. Host countries have resisted classifying refugees as permanent settlers because of concerns that they may never return to Syria once they permanently resettled. As a result, host governments arrived at a messy compromise; providing temporary shelter for displaced Syrian citizens substantially diffused the crisis, but it was not a long-term solution.
The lack of a coherent collective plan in Europe has led to serious challenges that threaten the survival of a unified Europe itself, not to mention the long-term future of displaced Syrian refugees. The refugee crisis sparked many concerns within European Union (EU) member states. As the crisis escalated, nationalist and xenophobic sentiments have become a growing concern, and anti-immigrant populist movements have gained strength throughout the continent.
Anti-immigration sentiment has become inflamed across the developed countries in Europe as well as in neighboring countries. Populist leaders across Europe have been using the migration crisis as political capital while ultra-nationalist parties have successfully turned fear of refugees into votes. Will the flame carry across the Atlantic for Venezuelan asylum seekers?
The challenges of Latin American countries
As the scale of the Venezuelan crisis becomes more acute, the million-dollar question is how Latin American countries will manage a refugee crisis on a scale that the continent has never experienced.
Latin American countries’ first reaction to the Venezuelan refugee crisis showed some striking similarities with the European reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. Under current policy, Latin American countries are considering the Venezuelan refugees as temporary settlers that will return to their home country once the Maduro regime leaves power. But that moment seems a long way off, as the once petroleum-rich country continues to spiral into an economic, political and humanitarian disaster. Meanwhile there are no serious challenges to Maduro’s grip on power and a realistic exit strategy remains difficult to imagine. The Venezuelan government will most likely retain its hold on power through more repression within Venezuela and finding new, like-minded allies around the world.
The process ahead is littered with the challenges for Venezuela’s neighbors. As the number of Venezuelan refugees soars, animosity towards Venezuelan migrants will likely continue to grow. As the scale of the exodus grows, these refugees will be scapegoated for economic shortcomings in hosting countries. Populations will start to believe that Venezuelan migrants are responsible for taking their jobs and social benefits. Indeed, harassment aimed at intimidating Venezuelan refugees has already started to appear in some Latin American countries. If this crisis isn’t addressed as an objective policy issue, the region risks a tide of right-wing populism fueled by negative sentiment towards refugees.
A way out
With no short-term solution in sight, a strategy that addresses the long-term issues presented by the presence Venezuelan refugees in host countries is essential. The region needs to be better positioned to identify and react to the refugee crisis before it turns into a full-blown regional crisis. Venezuelan refugees should be considered as permanent migrants given the deteriorating situation in their poor, directionless country. At the same time, host countries should concentrate on long-term policies to mitigate the potential political, economic, and social disturbance within their borders.
Most important, due to the risks associated with rising negative sentiment, a better integration policy would be in the interest of host countries. As the Venezuelan crisis continues to drag on, the continued presence of Venezuelan migrants throughout Latin America threatens to strain economies and deepen political tensions, fueling public anxiety and hostility towards the refugees. And given Maduro’s intransigence, the political oppositions’ lack of a coherent democratic strategy and the government’s half-baked economic proposals, change is unlikely to come soon.
Host countries should come to terms with the possibility that many displaced Venezuelans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. By adopting a holistic, compassionate long-term strategy for integrating Venezuelan refugees socially and economically, Latin American countries can avoid the serious errors of their European counterparts.