As deepening economic woes force thousands of Venezuelans to flee the crisis-gripped country, the United Nations on Tuesday issued guidance on treating the population as “refugees,” while the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned that the outflow into neighboring countries such as Colombia constitutes a “humanitarian disaster.”
“The movements are taking place for a variety of reasons, including insecurity and violence, lack of food, medicine or access to essential social services as well as loss of income,” Aikaterini Kitidi, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters at the regular press briefing in Geneva.
“While not all Venezuelans leaving are prompted to do so for refugee-related reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear that, while all may not be refugees, a significant number are in need of international protection,” she added.
Since 2014, there has been a 2,000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals seeking asylum worldwide, principally in the Americas during the last year.
While in 2017 over 94,000 Venezuelans have been able to access refugee procedures in other countries, many in need of protection opt for other legal stay arrangements, which may be faster to obtain and provide the right to work, access to health and education.
Yet, hundreds of thousands remain without documentation or legal permission to stay in asylum countries – making them vulnerable to discrimination, trafficking, sexual abuse and xenophobia.
UNHCR’s guidelines encourage States to ensure Venezuelans have access to territory and refugee procedures.
“In addition,” Ms. Kitidi pointed out “UNHCR welcomes and calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses for the Venezuelan people, such as alternative legal stay arrangements, including visas or temporary residence permits, as well as other regularization programmes, which guarantee access to the basic rights of health care, education, family unity, freedom of movement, shelter and the right to work.”
UNHCR applauds countries in Latin America that have introduced such arrangements, and hopes that costs and requirements are eased, where necessary to ensure accessibility.
“It is crucial that people are not deported or forcibly returned there,” she underscored.
While Governments in the region have been generous in their response, host communities receiving Venezuelans are under increasing strain and need urgent and robust support, to promote peaceful coexistence and prevent manifestations of discrimination and xenophobia.
“UNHCR is working with Governments to address the protection and basic needs of the outflow,” she continued. “Consequently, UNHCR has developed a regional response plan that covers eight countries and the Caribbean sub-region.”
Meanwhile, WFP Executive Director David Beasley, who is in Colombia, said the outflow of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries constitutes a “humanitarian disaster.”
He said it was catastrophic that around 50,000 people are now choosing to cross the border each day, just at one location – “and that’s the legal border crossing.”