As Borders Tighten, Will Desperate Refugees Soon Face No Escape From Venezuela?

Aug 27, 2018

Last week José Molleja became one of the countless Venezuelans stranded on the border between Colombia and Ecuador.

The 22-year-old Venezuelan can’t find enough work to live in crisis-torn Venezuela. So he spent a week on a bus getting from Caracas to join relatives who’d already emigrated to Ecuador.

But when Molleja arrived he was stunned. Before, Ecuador had only asked Venezuelans to show a photo ID to enter the country. Now the country was suddenly making them present passports.

“I don’t have a passport,” said Molleja. “Most people can’t get one in Venezuela now because of the terrible economic situation." Meaning, most Venezuelans can’t afford passports anymore – and the government often can’t afford to import the materials to make them.

Shortly after Ecuador, neighboring Peru also began requiring Venezuelan migrants to have passports. The U.N. estimates one-tenth of Venezuela’s 30 million people have fled to other countries in the past few years – and Peru and Ecuador say they’re being overwhelmed by Venezuelan migrants. Now they’re trying to slow down the wave of refugees like Molleja.

“After all the struggle to get here,” Molleja said, “this is like a punch in the gut.”

READ MORE: Will Desperation Make Venezuelans More Violently Radical - Here and There?

Elsewhere things have even gotten violent. Last week in Brazil, people in the border city of Pacaraima attacked a Venezuelan refugee camp. In a video that went viral, you can hear them shouting and throwing firecrackers as they tear down the camp, burn tents and chase the Venezuelan migrants out.

The Brazilians accused a Venezuelan of robbing and beating a local restaurant owner. But there have been other similar attacks on refugees in border towns. Last week Brazilian officials had to send troops there to prevent further incidents.

People have to get out of Venezuela – and now we're seeing the really poor people going to really poor places. So of course we're going to see clashes, and it's horribly sad. –Girish Gupta

What they can’t stop is the catastrophic economic collapse those Venezuelans are escaping – the worst in the world today. Food is scarce and hyperinflation has made Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar, worthless. 

“If you’d bought a million U.S. dollars’ worth of bolívars five years ago, it would now be worth three dollars forty cents," says Girish Gupta, who heads the economic analysis firm Data Drum in Caracas.

Gupta says Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist policies are making that horrific mess worse – and the only people left to escape it are the poorest. They didn’t flee before because they didn’t have the resources. They still don’t; but now they have no choice.

“People have to get out of Venezuela," says Gupta. "And now we’re seeing the really poor people going to really poor places. So of course we’re going to have clashes between them, and it’s horribly sad to see." 

Back in Ecuador, Alex Cruz, the governor of Carchi Province on the border with Colombia, says he too sees Venezuela's most desperate now pouring into countries like his. And he’s worried they’re straining limited social budgets and raising crime rates.

“In the town of Ambato here a Venezuelan man was just charged with killing a taxi driver,” Cruz said. “What are we supposed to do if the crisis in Venezuela keeps spiraling out of control?”

TRUMPIAN RESPONSE

If it sounds like Venezuela’s crisis is prompting South Americans to adopt an attitude toward immigration much like President Donald Trump’s…well, it is. A big fear now for Venezuelan migrants is that even next-door Colombia might soon block them for fear of being overrun.

“In Colombia, the authorities are talking everyday about, ‘We can’t receive more Venezuelans,’” says Patricia Andrade, who heads the non-profit Venezuela Awareness Foundation in Doral.

Andrade and other Venezuelan expat leaders visited Bogotá this month and met with Colombian and U.S. officials, as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott.

They told them they were grateful Colombia has taken in a million Venezuelan refugees. But they’re hoping the U.S. will increase its aid to Colombia to make the relentless migrant flow more manageable.

“Every day, the humanitarian crisis, you can see that it’s worse," says Andrade. "The U.S., they need to be ready to help more Venezuelans in need that go to Colombia.”

The Trump Administration has made it harder for Venezuelans to come to the U.S. But this month the U.S. did hand Colombia an additional $9 million to help Venezuelans there. Next month it will send the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort to Colombia as part of the refugee aid effort.

That won’t solve the problem for Venezuelan migrants like Jose Molleja who find themselves blocked from getting into countries like Ecuador (even though a judge there over the weekend ordered the government to soften the passport ID requirement somewhat).

For them, the struggle to escape from Venezuela has begun to feel like no escape from Venezuela.

Manuel Rueda contributed to this report from the Colombia-Ecuador border.