SEATTLE — In June of this year, UNICEF issued an official press release expressing “deep” concern for the children of Venezuela due to violent protests and demonstrations in the country. Children have been killed or hurt; schools and health centers have been closed. A few weeks later, UNICEF issued yet another press release, stating that “UNICEF urges the leaders, conveners and participants in public demonstrations to make these events peaceful and, together with families, guide children and adolescents to avoid exposure to dangerous situations.”
The country’s shortage of electricity, food and water has caused multiple schools to shut down, often for weeks at a time. Some children miss 40 percent of class time as a result. The food shortage leaves teachers waiting in line for groceries to feed their families rather than in the classroom teaching, and some have even exchanged milk and flour for passing grades, according to Business Insider. Schools are struggling to find supplies to print out report cards, and to put food in the cafeteria. High crime rates mean many students are afraid to go to school. Since 2011, the annual dropout rate in Venezuela has doubled.
A living conditions survey issued by the Central University of Venezuela, the Andrés Bello Catholic University, the Simón Bolívar University, the Fundación Bengoa food and nutrition group and other non-governmental organizations concluded that almost 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of at least 19 pounds in 2016 due to lack of food. A staggering 93 percent of the population in Venezuela does not have enough money to pay for food. The survey also found that more than one million children no longer attend school, with 30 percent of those attributing their absence to water problems, and 22 percent to electricity blackouts.
Venezuela is facing 750 percent inflation and 25 percent unemployment (the United States has a 1.9 percent inflation rate and just over 4 percent unemployment, for comparison). Venezuela’s unemployment rate was only around seven percent in 2015.
Numbers of documented Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States have gone from 5,605 in 2015 to 14,728 in 2016, and the numbers are only going up. Venezuelans are now at the top of the list of those seeking asylum in the United States. The Venezuela Awareness Foundation, based in Florida, has seen a staggering increase in those requesting assistance. According to CNN, foundation leader Patricia Andrade went from getting the occasional call from a family in need in 2014 to 30 calls a week in 2017. The organization has even had to move to a larger facility to accommodate the escalating numbers.
After the U.S., Venezuelans tend to seek asylum in Brazil, Peru, Spain and Mexico. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that almost 50,000 Venezuelans applied for asylum worldwide this year. Brazil allows those who request asylum to enroll their children in Brazilian school, despite the language barriers. Since 2014, more than 12,000 Venezuelans have moved to Brazil, and the country is struggling to keep up with the refugees’ urgent medical, education and economic needs. Americas Director at Human Rights Watch José Miguel Vivanco says that Brazil and other countries may soon have to “press” Venezuela’s leaders to start addressing the country’s issues and make steps to remedy them.
Vice News reported on a Colombian organization originally focused on serving its own people, which has had to “devote a growing share of resources to desperate Venezuelans.” The co-founder expressed concerns for Venezuela’s youth, explaining that many young Venezuelan refugees may turn to armed groups because of the lack of education. According to Vice, Colombian law prohibits Venezuelan children from attending the country’s schools. Colombian schools can be fined for admitting Venezuelan students.
There is currently a bill supporting Venezuelan refugees sponsored by Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo called the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act (H.R.2161). If passed, the bill would allow permanent residence to Venezuelan refugees who were present in the U.S. on January 1, 2013, have been in the U.S. for at least one year, have not been convicted of a crime and apply before January 2021.
– Katherine Gallagher