Asylum Seekers in the U.S. — Venezuelans Top the List

By Joanne Lin, Senior Managing Director of Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International USA

In 2017 a new group has jumped to the top of foreign nationals seeking U.S. asylum protection — Venezuelans. It’s the first time that Venezuelans have topped the list of asylum seekers in the U.S. — ahead of citizens of China, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

In February 2017 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Homeland Security Department announced that Venezuelans are the largest group of asylum seekers in the U.S. In Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2016, 18,155 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the U.S. This represents a 160 percent jump compared to FY 2015 when 5,605 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the U.S. The number of applications for asylum in FY 2017 is expected to be even higher. Between January and March 2017, 8,301 Venezuelans requested asylum in the U.S., nearly double the number in the same period of 2016. One in every five asylum applicants this FY is Venezuelan. Just as in the U.S., South America and Europe have also seen huge increases in the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Why Are Venezuelans Seeking Asylum Protection in Growing Numbers?

A combination of factors in Venezuela is pushing people to leave. The exodus of Venezuelans is spurred by police use of excessive force against protesters, indiscriminate violence against protestors, politically-motivated arrests and detentions, unlawful prosecution of civilians in military courts, and devastating shortages of food and medicine. The recent Amnesty International report Silenced By Force: Politically-Motivated Arbitrary Detentions in Venezuela documents several cases of arbitrary detention being used to silence political dissidents, even when courts have ordered warrants for release. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “more than 100 journalists and media workers have been threatened, harassed, detained, injured, or otherwise obstructed from doing their work in Venezuela since mass protests erupted.” In May an armored military tank rolled over a protester, and a man was burned alive during a protest. This year, at least 100 people have been killed during protests, according to the Venezuelan Attorney General, and 69% of the deaths have been by gunshots.

What Is Happening to Venezuelans Once They Apply for Asylum in the U.S.?

Between 2006 and 2015, about 77 percent of Venezuelan asylum petitions were granted. Since mid-2015, reports have circulated that U.S. border officials have started sending back Venezuelans who attempted to enter the U.S. on a business or tourist visa. This includes Venezuelans who expressed a fear of returning to Venezuela. Under international law, the U.S. may not return or deport anyone to a country where she or he is liable to be persecuted or tortured. For asylum-seekers like Marco Coello, however, fleeing to the U.S. still resulted in detention, despite his claims of torture at the hands of the Venezuelan government, and despite his case being included in the U.S. State Department’s human rights report on Venezuela.

As the Venezuela crisis deepens, growing numbers of Venezuelans are expected to seek asylum in neighboring countries including the U.S. Amnesty International will continue to closely monitor these developments to ensure that the U.S. government provides a fair asylum process to Venezuelans fleeing persecution and violence.

How to Explain the Venezuelan Crisis in 140 Characters

Dive deep with our country report:

Silenced by Force: Politically-Motivated Arbitrary Detentions in Venezuela

  • asylum-seeker: someone who has left their country seeking protection but has yet to be recognized as a refugee. During the time that their asylum claim is being examined, the asylum-seeker must not be forced to return to their country of origin. Under international law, being a refugee is a fact-based status, and arises before the official, legal grant of asylum.

Mallika Balakrishnan, Advocacy Intern for the Americas at Amnesty International USA also contributed to this post.

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