Latin American governments need to provide Venezuelan refugees temporary legal status due to the deepening crisis in the oil-rich South American country that has triggered what Human Rights Watch called "the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history."
Over 2.3 million Venezuelans out of an estimated 32 million total population have left their country since 2014, according to the United Nations. However, "many more whose cases will not have been registered by authorities have left," according to Human Rights Watch.
The 33-page report, “ The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” documents efforts by South American governments to address the exodus of Venezuelans crossing their borders, including arbitrary arrests and deportations and incidents of xenophobia.
“While many governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome fleeing Venezuelans, the growing scale of the crisis requires a uniform, collective response,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should adopt a consistent response to ensure people forced to flee Venezuela get the protection they need to start anew,” he added.
Venezuela claims migration flow from the country is normal, and that the situation is being used as an excuse by its ideological enemies to justify foreign intervention in the country. President Nicolás Maduro said in a televised broadcast on Monday that opposition protests and U.S. financial sanctions had led some Venezuelans to "try their luck" in other countries but many were reconsidering that decision.
"More than 90 percent are regretting it, of this group that isn't more than 600,000 Venezuelans who have left the country in the last two years, according to confirmed, certified serious figures," he said.
Ecuador’s foreign ministry convened a regional meeting in Quito for September 3-4 to address Venezuelan emigration. "We need to make the crisis visible and channel economic aid" to host countries and migrants, Ecuador's acting Foreign Minister Andres Teran said during the inauguration of the meeting which is being held to seek humanitarian solutions for Venezuelan migrants who lack jobs and risk exploitation, Teran said.
The Organization of American States Permanent Council is expected to hold a separate meeting on the Venezuela crisis on Wednesday.
Governments initially welcomed the migrants, but when the exodus exploded this year it has overwhelmed Venezuela's neighbors. Last month Ecuador and Peru announced tighter entry rules for Venezuelans, requiring them to carry valid passports instead of national ID cards.
Human Rights Watch recommended that regional governments share the refugee burden by adopting a universal temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans legal status, including work permits and suspension of deportation. This would include "safe, orderly, and voluntary transfers of refugees and asylum seekers among host countries according to their capacity to receive, process, and integrate them," Human Rights Watch said in its report.
The report also recommended "targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and cancelling visas against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights abuses."
In July and August 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted research missions to Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, including interviews with United Nations and government officials and dozens of Venezuelans who had crossed the border.
The human rights group cited international law protecting refugees who face "a well-founded fear of persecution," including the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in which 15 regional governments adopted a broader definition of refugee that obliges them to offer protection to people fleeing “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”
Some South American governments have adopted special rules to provide Venezuelans legal permits to stay, but "hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation, which severely undermines their ability to obtain a work permit, send their children to school, and access health care," according to Human Rights Watch. "This makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, and less likely to report abuses to competent authorities," it added.
The report also highlights that Venezuelans are the leading nationality requesting asylum in the United States and Spain, with only a small percentage receiving it.
“Venezuela opened its doors to people fleeing South America’s dictatorships and internal conflicts in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Vivanco. “Its neighbors now have the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for the Venezuelan people, and governments meeting in Quito this week to discuss the Venezuelan exodus should stand up to the task.”