Millions of Venezuelans face uncertainty when they are not recognized as refugees, asylum seekers, or granted a protected status

By Sarah Strinka, Refugee Advocacy Government Relations Intern

The number of Venezuelans leaving the country surpassed 4 million earlier this summer and is on track to reach over 5 million by the end of 2019. The displacement crisis in Venezuela is quickly approaching migration levels seen throughout the first few years of the Syrian war and is on track to outpace the Syrian refugee crisis in sheer numbers should nothing change. Sadly, the United States government has not demonstrated a coherent approach to this crisis nor provided the regional leadership desperately needed to provide much needed solutions to end this crisis.

Millions are fleeing Venezuela where they endure countless human rights violations of their right to life, food, and health. All states have a duty to protect human rights by seeking solutions under the principle of shared responsibility, as reflected in the Quito Process and its Action Plan as well as the Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP) for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela proposed by the interinstitutional platform coordinated by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The crisis in Venezuela is fueled by abysmal economic conditions, poor governance, the worst drought the country has seen in 40 years, and widespread repression of those calling for a change in government. While each of these issues alone does not account for the mass migration, the combination has tipped the scales and created an uninhabitable environment throughout the country, forcing many citizens to make that fateful decision to leave their home. This myriad of conditions leading to mass migration is typical of many countries facing a refugee crisis. Many migration patterns are largely influenced by a combination of fluctuating conditions, and the cross-cutting nature of migration drivers means that no one policy community is obligated to respond.

The international community has a responsibility to accept asylum seekers when they cross the border, ensuring their safety, health, and protection. Amnesty’s Welcome Venezuela (Bienvenida Venezuela) Campaign, launched in May 2019, illustrates experiences of individuals and communities who have left Venezuela. The campaign urges the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to accept international cooperation and coordination to ensure that assistance directly reaches those needing relief, and to bring the policy of repression to an end. Amnesty International also asks that states in Latin America and the Caribbean unanimously declare that Venezuela is facing a situation of massive human rights violations, and that those fleeing should not be returned to the country, as it would be a violation of the principle of non-refoulement. States in the region should also guarantee Venezuelan migrants and refugees regular legal status, work to ensure that statelessness doesn’t occur, and provide unrestricted access to international protection systems.

Venezuela has been the number one country of origin for affirmative asylum claims in the United States throughout 2017, 2018, and the first half of 2019. Yet, Venezuelans only make up 2% of approved asylum applications, and nearly 50% of applications are denied. The United States’ Migrant Protection Protocols, more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy has also returned many Venezuelan migrants to dangerous situations.

Even when Venezuelans make an affirmative asylum claim in the United States, they may be subjected to waiting for their hearing in Tamaulipas, Mexico which has the same level of State Department travel advisory as Syria and Afghanistan. At a level 4 travel advisory, the United States government urges people not to travel to the area, and to leave as soon as is feasible if they are there. This means that Tamaulipas is a dangerous place to travel due to violent crimes such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. Yet, while the United States government advises US citizens not to travel to Tamaulipas, it is sending asylum seekers there to wait for their hearings.

Members of the international community should work with civil society organizations and humanitarian agencies to ensure the safety of Venezuelan citizens fleeing this deadly situation. This includes advocating for our governments to ensure a process for asylum and other broader protections when Venezuelans enter the country. The United States should recognize Venezuelans as refugees if they meet the eligibility criteria and extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to those who do not meet these requirements.

Amnesty International (USA) supports expanding TPS to include Venezuelans as an outcome of this humanitarian crisis. TPS would protect these individuals from deportation to Venezuela until there is a guarantee for safe return to the country. It is within the power of the Trump Administration to designate TPS for Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers without the need for congressional action. However, the administration has inexcusably refused to act on the matter. The lack of action within the administration has prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019 (H.R. 549) on July 15. With this vote, the bill moved to the U.S. Senate, where the Senate failed to vote on it before the August congressional recess.

We must encourage governments to ensure that their asylum and refugee policies do not violate human rights in any way. This includes protecting Venezuelans from returning to the increasingly dangerous situation in Venezuela that drove them to leave their home. Forcible return of Venezuelans would violate the principle of non-refoulement, by returning individuals to a home country with continuing fear of persecution and violence.

Furthermore, we must work together to strengthen states’ shared responsibility, including encouraging the United States government to support the regional response providing humanitarian assistance to countries accepting and protecting most Venezuelans.

Ideally, Venezuelans should not be forced to leave their homes by poor economic conditions, a hostile government, or climate changes and environmental degradation making the land inhospitable. Short of ensuring their ability to safely and sustainably remain in their home country, the international community should at least work towards protecting those who have made the treacherous journey to another country with the hope of finding security.

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