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How Latin America Is Responding to Venezuelan Refugees

Following Latin American traditions of solidarity, Peru and Brazil have taken in many Venezuelans fleeing their country. Yet government responses have critical gaps, which could leave many more unprotected if Venezuela’s crisis escalates, say three regional experts.

Written by Helisane Mahlke, Nicolas Parent, Lilian Yamamoto Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Venezuela border
A porter carries the bags of a migrant crossing from Venezuela to Colombia. Nicolò Filippo Rosso for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Latin America has a long history of humanitarian solidarity and protecting migrants. This solidarity has been tested by Venezuela’s quickly evolving socio-political and humanitarian crisis.

Since 2014, Venezuela has been mired in economic crisis and political unrest. Venezuelans who see no end in sight to food and medicine shortages, opposition protests and government crackdowns have increasingly sought routes out of the country.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, over 100,000 Venezuelans have claimed asylum since 2014 while 190,000 others have found alternative legal pathways. Most went to Colombia, now home to an estimated 470,000 Venezuelans. Many others headed elsewhere, including up to 30,000 to Brazil and at least 81,000 to Peru in the first seven months of 2017.

Alongside other countries in the region, Peru and Brazil have made laudatory efforts to help those fleeing the oil-rich Bolivarian Republic. But those governments’ responses have been limited by two factors: The governments have been mostly reactive rather than proactive, and the policies have been poorly communicated to Venezuelans seeking refuge.

It is important to understand the limitations to these frameworks should the situation in Venezuela deteriorate further and even larger numbers of Venezuelans seek refuge in the region.

Peru’s ‘Exemplary’ Temporary Residence

After an unusually high number of Venezuelan arrivals in Peru this year, the Peruvian government devised a new temporary work-study permit scheme. Named Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP), it is specifically targeted toward providing work and study permits to Venezuelan citizens for a one-year period, with the possibility of renewal.

The PTP explicitly grants two rights: gainful employment and temporary residency. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has called it “an example for the region of how states can protect migrants who are in a vulnerable situation by regularizing migration.”

But as violence in Venezuela escalates, a legal instrument of this kind is an inadequate means of international protection.

Peru’s asylum law, passed in 2003, applies to those who have fled Venezuela as a result of persecution or violence. According to the UNHCR, the country has received approximately 6,000 asylum claims from Venezuelans in 2017, and it has provided temporary residence through the PTP to over 11,000 people.

Interviews with Venezuelan migrants conducted in May 2017 consistently suggest that, upon arrival in Peru, migration officers provide little information about asylum at both border zones and at the head office of the National Superintendence of Migrations (or Migraciones).

“They told me I was only eligible for PTP,” one interviewee said, “but when I explained to a lawyer friend that I left Caracas because several of my NGO co-workers were put in jail, I found out that I could apply for refugee status here. Now it’s too late.”

The PTP has received much praise in the region and has – wrongfully – been considered a form of protection.

While fundamental rights such as food, shelter, healthcare and protection are explicitly guaranteed in Peru’s asylum law, the PTP only briefly mentions the importance of these rights within the body of its preamble.

Instead of actively building upon existing protection instruments, Peru has reacted to the influx of Venezuelans by confounding the legislative landscape for migrants with an ill-communicated work-study and residency permit.

If more Venezuelans flee due to violence and persecution in their country – and thus, have legal grounds for refugee status – these very clear differences between Peru’s national asylum legislation and the “alternative” PTP will become increasingly problematic.

Expanding Refuge in Brazil

At first, the increasing number of Venezuelans arriving in Brazil did not result in any immediate response from the Brazilian government. Brazil did not have a migration policy or reception system for migrants until this year.

Brazil does have a refugee law, which grants asylum seekers the right to stay in Brazil until their claim is judged by the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), as well as the right to provisory documents that permit them to work and gain access to public services. Some 3,300 Venezuelans applied for asylum in Brazil in 2016.

In 2017, after pressure from civil society and public bodies, Brazil agreed to grant temporary residence to Venezuelans through Resolution No. 126 of 2017. Venezuelan citizens who apply through this process have the right to a work permit and temporary residency.

Even so, many Venezuelans continue to apply for refugee status instead of residency in Brazil. The UNHCR says 13,600 Venezuelans lodged asylum claims in 2017, while 1,680 temporary residence permits have been issued.

According to a report by João Silva of Brazil’s Federal University of Roraima, and add a note: This story has been updated to clarify that the report on uptake of Resolution No. 126 was written by João Silva.

This year, Brazil finally passed a migration law. The new law takes a rights-based approach and could open up more legal migration channels for both refugees and people coming to Brazil for social and economic reasons.

A Way Forward

Despite Brazil and Peru’s international commitments to refugee protection and human rights and praiseworthy efforts to protect Venezuelans, their response is hampered by confusing policies and lack of information.

In Peru, the incongruence between the country’s national refugee law and the Venezuelan-specific PTP is problematic, creating protection gaps for those who would effectively qualify for international protection.

Brazil has an increasingly strong legal framework, including its new migration law, refugee law and the rights enshrined in its constitution. However, much depends on whether Venezuelans are able to access their rights.

The difficulties Venezuelans have found in applying for residency under the new resolution shows the importance of supplementing policies on paper with information campaigns and a real commitment from public institutions at all levels to implement the policy. This will become even more critical if the crisis in Venezuela rapidly escalates and many more people seek shelter across the region.

Latin America’s warm welcome doesn’t ring true if people fleeing Venezuela can’t realize their right to asylum and a dignified life.

To read more about Peru and Brazil’s response to Venezuelan migration, all three contributors have recently published articles on this topic in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR 56  Latin America and the Caribbean).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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