Why Latin America Should Recognize Venezuelans as Refugees

Latin America has one of the world’s most advanced approaches to refugees, yet it is reluctant to apply it to Venezuelans. Expert Luisa Feline Freier argues that the Venezuelan displacement crisis is a crucial test for the Cartagena Declaration.

Written by Luisa Feline Freier Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Venezuelan migrants walk along the railway tracks nearby an improvised camp in Bogota on September 11, 2018. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years. According to their refugee laws, most Latin American countries ought to recognize these Venezuelan migrants as refugees. Yet they have been reluctant to do so.

The region developed one of the world’s most advanced approaches to refugees in a 1984 declaration in Cartagena, Colombia. Going beyond the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the Cartagena Declaration defines refugees as people who flee their country “because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

The Cartagena definition, then, not only focuses on the well-founded fear of being individually persecuted but also includes adverse circumstances that a country may go through that would cause large groups of people to flee.

Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay have all included the Cartagena refugee definition in their national refugee legislation.

In private conversations, many officials and representatives of international organizations share the assessment that the forced displacement of Venezuelans falls under the Cartagena definition. Yet the political cost of being the first and potentially only country to recognize this publicly is high. Governments fear this could lead to a further influx of Venezuelans to their countries, putting more stress on already underperforming public services and stirring xenophobic sentiment.

There thus exists an official consensus in the region that Cartagena does not apply to the Venezuelan displacement crisis. “The situation in Venezuela is not as bad yet,” a high-ranking official of Peru’s refugee department declared at an event in Lima on World Refugee Day on June 20.

In private conversations, many officials and representatives of international organizations share the assessment that the forced displacement of Venezuelans falls under the Cartagena definition.

Somewhat surprisingly, only a small fraction of Venezuelans have filed asylum claims. Many do not know that they can apply for asylum, while others do not want to be recognized as refugees because they feel it comes with a stigma attached.

Even so, asylum applications by Venezuelans have almost tripled each year since 2014. Numbers worldwide rose from 3,975 in 2014 to 113,428 in 2017. In 2018, 126,998 Venezuelans had applied for asylum in Peru by mid-June, 72,722 in the U.S. by the end of June and 57,575 in Brazil by the end of July, according to the latest data compiled by UNHCR.

However, Latin American governments are processing only a small number of applications. For example, from 2014 to 2017, Peru decided only 971 cases, accepting 239 and rejecting 548. The large number of claims left pending – whether through lack of capacity, deliberate policy or both – leaves Venezuelans without adequate protection.

The low levels of refugee recognition come despite Venezuela’s socioeconomic, political and humanitarian crisis meeting three of the Cartagena criteria: generalized violence, massive violation of human rights and other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order.

Regarding generalized violence, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), Venezuela is the second most violent country in the world, with a homicide rate of 89 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017. While the Venezuelan government did not release any official figures on crime for 2017, unofficial statistics indicate that most categories of crime increased that year.

The government’s countermeasures of militarizing public security and the increasing participation of civilians in armed groups and “colectivos” have worsened the situation. According to the Committee of Relatives of Victims (COFAVIC), the number of extrajudicial executions grew by 37 percent in 2015 and by 70 percent in 2016. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the deployment of the military and armed civilian militias seriously compromised the state’s duty to ensure its citizens’ security and safeguard their human rights.

Concerning the massive violation of human rights, the government led by President Nicolas Maduro represses any form of opposition. Those who disagree with the government run the risk of reprisals, including arrest and dismissal from public office. IACHR has declared that Venezuela’s practice of requiring authorization for any public demonstration is incompatible with inter-American standards, violating the right to protest and freedom of expression.

Thousands of people have been arrested without a warrant based on the mere suspicion that they are supporters of the opposition. Protesters have been prosecuted under military criminal jurisdiction and prisoners have become victims of torture and sexual violence. The right to freedom of expression is further curtailed by censorship and the shutdown of media outlets, harassment of journalists and criminalization of information opposing the regime.

Finally, regarding other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, as referred to in the Cartagena Declaration, Venezuela is going through a severe humanitarian crisis. At the end of 2017, 87 percent of the population in Venezuela lived in poverty, with 80 percent affected by food insecurity. In December, aid group Caritas said there were close to 300,000 malnourished children at risk of starving, with six dying every week in the Venezuelan capital Caracas alone. Ninety percent of households could not afford children’s daily meals, and 33 percent of children showed irreversible mental and physical developmental delays, according to the charity.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan health system has collapsed, with a severe lack of medicine and materials for medical treatment. Venezuela’s education system has also been compromised by the lack of teachers and materials.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the IACHR consider that the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelans fall within the definition of Cartagena and see its application as a potential solution to the Venezuelan displacement crisis.

Given the potentially high cost of being the first or only country to apply Cartagena, regional cooperation is essential to reach a joint response and adhere to the spirit of Cartagena.

This would be the first time that Cartagena is applied as a definition to groups of people prima facie and would significantly strengthen the region’s progressive protection framework. If countries continue to resist applying Cartagena, they run the risk of reducing their heralded legislation to mere words and window dressing.

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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