TACOMA, Washington — Venezuelans have endured the largest refugee crisis in recent years, with nearly five million people fleeing from the country. However, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis, approximately 130,000 Venezuelan refugees have attempted to return home to Venezuela due to worsening conditions in their new host countries.
Venezuelan returnee facilities are overcrowded and face limited food, water and access to medical care,. These conditions are likely to promote the spread of the virus. Protesters against the poor living conditions have reportedly been jailed, a move which has further accelerated the pandemic’s growth.
Venezuela’s Current Economy
Often referred to as a failed petrostate, Venezuela’s economy has struggled in recent years due to tumbling oil prices. The inflation rate hit 1,300,000% in 2018. For comparison, any inflation rate over 50% is considered to be economic hyperinflation. As a result, 97% of citizens have experienced food insecurity, a crisis that has only worsened as time goes on. Many are forced to turn to cheap, versatile and nutritionally empty foods, such as the yucca plant.
The government has expressed little concern to remedy these issues. In fact, it has exploited the hungry for political gain. For instance, in 2016, President Maduro created the Local Food Production and Provision Committee (CLAP). It was a critical program that provides food to more than 15% of the population in return for political support, winning him the re-election. This program has reportedly also been used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars for leaders of the regime. Additionally, U.S. sanctions and Maduro’s aid blockades have further pushed the Venezuelan people into poverty. Currently, 64.8% of the population live in poverty.
Due to these worsening conditions, nearly five million Venezuelans have fled the country to search for better standards of living, at a rate of approximately 5,000 refugees per day. These numbers rival those of the Syrian crisis, yet the Venezuelan plight remains largely undiscussed. The majority of these refugees have gone to neighboring countries, primarily Colombia, which is home to 1.8 million Venezuelans.
However, this massive influx of Venezuelan refugees has put a strain on host countries whose social programs were already stretched thin with their own crises. Unlike other refugee crisis, these countries have not received support from the international community. As a result, migrants have been hit especially hard by poor living conditions. For instance, 75% of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia do not have employment contracts, more than half of the migrants are at risk of starvation and many are unable to pay rent.
The Return to Venezuela Amid COVID-19
Sandwiched between poor living conditions on both sides, some Venezuelan refugees have opted to return to Venezuela. While President Maduro claims to welcome the returnees with open arms, the abusive conditions say otherwise.
Returnees in quarantine facilities lack basic amenities. Food and medical care are extremely limited, and clean drinking water is often unavailable. Many people share the same room, making it impossible to socially distance. On top of that, hygiene is poor with very little water and no soap available. Some returnees reported that upon reaching the passenger terminal at the Columbian border, they had to lie on the ground for three days, eating only what they brought with them.
Even after the 14-day quarantine is met, some returnees are still not able to leave due to testing delays and extraordinarily complex legal systems. Venezuelan officials say that due to limited food and testing, the system can only handle up to a thousand people a day. Even upon returning home, expatriates have faced xenophobia within their own country. Some have been derided as bioterrorists for supposedly bringing the virus back with them.
International Aid to Venezuelan Returnees
Although international aid is limited, many efforts have been made to help the returnees during this crisis. For instance, various teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been advocating among Venezuelan authorities for improved sanitation in quarantine facilities. So far, the groups have installed systems for gathering clean water, water purification resources, showers, bathrooms and more across 16 different facilities.
Despite these positive efforts, it is crucial that the international community recognizes the crisis and attempts to provide aid, especially in host countries for the millions of Venezuelan refugees. These issues are likely to continue as long as both the virus and economic issues continue to plague Latin America. Although situations are not entirely hopeless, international aid has become all the more vital toward ensuring people stay safe during these unprecedented times.
– Elizabeth Lee