The separation of the definition of migrant and refugee is well emphasised by the UNHCR, who states that “word choice matters” and calls for the clear separation of these two terms. Refugees are persons fleeing from armed conflict or persecution, protected by the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Migrants, on the other hand, have the choice of leaving, “choice” being the key distinction, and place no obligation of protection on host states. Migrants choose to move to a particular place, normally to find work, study, or for a family reunion. They are not prevented from returning home where they would, what is esteemed, face no risk to their lives.

Why Venezuelan’s Were Migrants Before Refugees

The rigid definition of refugee in the UN conventions has been criticised for letting those in need of protection slip through the net, particularly in the context of Venezuela where there is no war or necessarily risk of persecution (Nasr 2016). The UN, in being the architect of the convention, is tied to its definition of refugee which thus means parties who have ratified it are also tied to its definition. Due to the legal constraints imposed by the definition, the term “Venezuelan’s displaced abroad” from the UNHCR has emerged to refer to Venezuelan’s fleeing from their home, shedding light on the complexities of the convention and feeding into this preference of the term migrant rather than refugee for displaced Venezuelan’s.

For many, however, Venezuelans are seen as refugees, even if the convention does not esteem it as so. War or risk of persecution is replaced with grave famine, poverty, and lack of healthcare. Around 4.2 million out of 5.2 million displaced Venezuelan’s are in Latin American countries which have placed huge pressure on the region to respond to the crisis (Migration Policy Institute 2020). Throughout the beginnings of the Venezuelan crisis, Latin American countries opened themselves up and welcomed those fleeing from their homes, much more than was done by European countries for Syrians, for instance (Oner 2018). This approach was a testimony of Latin America’s historically open-door policy to regional migration.

The strong ties that many Latin American nations hold including the sharing of culture and language led to the notable creation of the Cartagena Declaration in 1984. As a complementary document to the UN convention, the declaration broadens the term of refugee rather than changes it. It applies a supplementary criterion to the previously rigid definition, adapting itself to the specific needs and problems in the region and additionally naming refugees as :

“…persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”.

With a continuous stream of Venezuelan’s seeking asylum in other countries, the depletion of resources has caused a massive strain on host countries, which has not been helped with restrictions enforced due to Covid 19. As noted by Wolfe (2021), the once strong motivation and political will to assist Venezuelan’s severely dwindled in 2020 which has been replaced with growing xenophobia and further barriers to regularisation. The added fact that the Cartagena Convention is not binding further exacerbates this problem, despite the UNHCR calling upon regional countries to assist.

While asylum can be sought under the motive of “massive violation of human rights”, either non-regularisation or short-term regularisation are preferred, on average of 2 years usually, enabling individuals to work and technically access social services. Yet, this approach lacks the same intention of refugee status that provides stability in the long-term to a highly precarious situation, something that is even more necessary in a growing anti-migrant discourse. Due to the reduction of resources and rising xenophobia, many Venezuelan’s are struggling to access adequate shelter or food, despite being regularised, for instance. According to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, economic reasons, lack of food, and lack of medicine do not qualify as a “proper refuge motivation” (Gurmendi 2018). Furthermore, Chile has drastically increased deportations of undocumented immigrants, and Trinidad and Tobago also denied entry to Venezuelan’s on boats leading, to the shipwreck and death of 20 Venezuelans in December 2020.

Brazil was the first country to apply the Cartagena Declaration. In 2019, it applied the Declaration to the case of 174 Venezuelan’s. This has had an ongoing impact, allowing more and more individuals to claim asylum in the country. For instance, Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), in 2019, granted refugee status to 21,000 Venezuelan’s via a prima facia system wherein asylum applicants without documentary proof of identity and no criminal record can obtain refugee status immediately without an interview (UN News 2019). Colombia is further mobilising its power to assist Venezuelan’s through granting 1.7  million with refugee status, enabling them to have 10-year renewable legal residency in the country, including access to vaccination programmes as well as employment. 

While there seems to be a small shift in the paradigm in approaching displaced Venezuelan’s, more needs to be done by the international community to tackle the reasons as to why barriers emerge in Venezuelan migration. The growing animosity and lack of resources to assist those in need demand further funding to be provided for host countries. As noted by Wolfe (2021), the Venezuelan crisis is the largest and most underfunded crisis in modern history and does not receive anywhere near enough funding. The Syrian crisis, for example, received over US$20.8 billion of funding as of the end of 2020 whereas the Venezuelan crisis has only received around US$1.4 billion, despite having a similar number of displacements (Bahar and Dooley 2021).

Efforts are being made to aid Venezuelan’s fleeing from their home, but simply not enough. It is to be expected that regional countries are growing incapable of assisting the crisis as refugees as resources deplete and stress heightens. Nevertheless, the viewpoint of seeing Venezuelan’s as migrants before refugees is problematic and exacerbates the problem of precarity and instability. The Cartagena Declaration is a remarkable tool in place that needs to be adopted more seriously by member states to encourage the attribution of refugee status. Furthermore, the international community should do more to assist host countries with funding to tackle the depletion of resources to assist in alleviating the reasons that push for harsher immigration regulations.


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