Quick facts: Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis

Colombia, May 7, 2018

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Editor's note: This article was originally published May 7, 2018; it was updated July 25, 2018 to reflect the latest information.

For several years Venezuela — once the richest country in South America — has been hurtling toward economic, social and institutional collapse, spurring a regional humanitarian crisis and mass migration.

Families are struggling to survive inside Venezuela, while others are making desperate journeys to leave their home country entirely.

The humanitarian crisis is now the worst in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 1.5 million people displaced in the region. More people may flee in the coming months as conditions in the country worsen.

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You can help. Learn more about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and the region and join us in supporting the families who are fleeing.

What is going on in Venezuela?

While the crisis in Venezuela has not been prominently featured in the news, the statistics are startling: 90 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line and more than half of families are unable to meet basic food needs. But what happened to cause these issues?

The political situation in Venezuela

After President Hugo Chavez died in 2013, Nicolás Maduro was elected president on a promise to continue Chavez’s policies. He inherited an already declining economy, but it has since collapsed.

Political repression is increasing and many are leaving because of threats or fear of reprisal for expressing their opinions.

Venezuelans are facing malnutrition

Because of the economic collapse, Venezuelans are struggling to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families.

The average Venezuelan has lost a shocking 24 pounds in the past year. Local organizations have warned that 300,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition.

In fact, the situation in Venezuela is so dire that the Secretary General of the Organization of American States recently said that newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today.

There are few health services left

Medical facilities in Venezuela are breaking down and losing their electricity at the same time that the cost of medications has become astronomical. There is a shortage of around 85 percent of all medicines in the country.

Meanwhile, 13,000 doctors have left Venezuela in the past four years.

Without access to proper medical care, people have become more vulnerable to treatable and communicable diseases like tuberculosis and malaria.

Society in Venezuela is breaking down

Jobs in Venezuela have all but disappeared, and with violence on the rise and reliable access to food, healthcare and medicine deteriorating, more than 1.5 million Venezuelans in the last two years have left.

Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The murder rate was 89 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, more than 10 times the global average. Almost 40 percent of Venezuelans report having been robbed in the last year.

Inflation in Venezuela has skyrocketed

Inflation in Venezuela has grown exponentially in the past few years. The high inflation has been devastating for Venezuelans, whose salaries often are not enough to pay for one meal a day. Few people can afford anything else.

Inflation is projected to grow to 1,000,000 percent this year, up from 112 percent in 2015.

Venezuela holds the world's largest supply of crude oil — but it’s not providing the income that it used to. The price of oil fell from $100 a barrel in 2014 to $26 a barrel in 2016. Now barrels are around $50 each, which means Venezuela’s main source of income has been cut in half.

Where are Venezuelans fleeing to?

The number of Venezuelans arriving in neighboring countries has steadily increased in recent months. Venezuelans are fleeing their home country to neighboring countries including Colombia and Brazil, and to others in the region such as Peru, Panama and Ecuador, as well as islands in the south Caribbean.

Colombia is currently hosting the largest number of Venezuelans — more than 600,000 — through official and unofficial entry points along its 1,300-mile border with Venezuela. On average, upwards of 50,000 people are crossing daily to Colombia to meet their basic needs, and an estimated 3,000 stay.

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Others continue their journey to join family in other areas of Colombia or the region, or go back to Venezuela after attempting to restock supplies of medicine, food and other essential items they can no longer get in Venezuela.

“Tens of thousands of people are leaving their families behind out of desperation, just on the hope of a shred of opportunity in Colombia,” says Provash Budden, Americas regional director for Mercy Corps.

Those fleeing Venezuela include Venezuelans, Colombians who have been living in Venezuela as refugees and people of mixed Colombian-Venezuelan heritage.

How have Venezuelans’ lives changed?

Many of the people fleeing once held good jobs in Venezuela. They were lawyers, business owners, doctors and nurses, government staff and university students.

Now they have to resort to selling services (for example, doing manicures or washing windows) or small items like candy, bread and coffee on the street just to feed themselves and their children, or to be able to pay for a safe place to sleep at night.

Earlier this year Colombia suspended temporary visas, so most Venezuelans arriving today can’t get legal work, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

In some areas, there are a few temporary housing options, but there aren’t nearly enough beds. Most people sleep on the beach, in parks or in other public areas. If they make enough money through informal jobs or selling goods on the street, they rent hammocks in private yards or spaces on the floor in private homes.

“There are some very good people who are so kind to us and there are people who yell at us and are mad at us for even being here or talking to them,” says one women who fled Venezuela. “It’s not our fault what is happening to us. We are all humans. We just wanted to be treated with dignity.”

What are Venezuelans doing to survive?

Many people arrive with little more than the clothes on their back after walking for hours on dangerous routes plagued by robberies and violence. By the time they arrive, they have been robbed or extorted of most, if not all, of their money and personal items.

When people arrive in Colombia, they often beg until they have enough money to buy coffee, bread, candies or other small items they can sell on the street. They are lucky if they earn between $2 and $5 a day, which they use to scrape by or to send back to Venezuela. For those who do get informal jobs, they are subject to low pay, long hours and exploitation.

One Venezuelan woman Mercy Corps interviewed in March, who was previously a working college graduate and now is trying to sell enough coffee on the street to feed her three-year-old daughter, says, “We can’t eat there. We can’t eat here. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Many Venezuelans arriving are young women at high risk of exploitation, harassment and sexual violence, as well as recruitment into drug trafficking and other armed groups. Often they are traveling alone with small children, and some women have resorted to sex work for survival and to feed their children.

What’s been the impact of this migration on Colombia?

Venezuelan migration into Colombia is putting pressure on Colombia’s already-stretched capacity to respond as the country faces its own internal crises.

Economic opportunities for Colombians where migrants settle are already scarce. The growing competition for jobs and resources is exacerbating numerous challenges their communities are already facing.

Tensions are rising as Colombians see Venezuelans taking jobs at a lower wage than legally allowed in Colombia, which is also an exploitative wage for the Venezuelans. They also see Venezuelans undercutting their own businesses by selling items brought from Venezuela at a much lower cost than possible for Colombian businesses.

At the same time, more than 7 million Colombians — second in the world after Syria — remain internally displaced after decades of armed conflict. Many are marginalized, rural, indigenous and Afro-Colombians, unable to meet even their most basic needs.

What is Mercy Corps doing to help?

Mercy Corps is now expanding its operations in Colombia to meet the urgent needs of Venezuelans in the department of La Guajira.

We are helping people get medicine by paying for prescriptions at local pharmacies in Riohacha. For hospital inpatients, in addition to paying for prescriptions we are providing needed items such as diapers and hygiene supplies. These medications are being used to treat conditions including respiratory illness, diarrhea, malnutrition of children under the age of five, eye and ear infections as well as high-risk pregnancies.

We are also providing cash vouchers to help Venezuelan families living in Putumayo, Colombia, where we already work to help vulnerable Colombians displaced by armed conflict meet their urgent needs.

Mercy Corps has worked in Colombia since 2005. In mid-March 2018, our team conducted an assessment in the Cesar and La Guajira departments, along the northern border with Venezuela.

The assessment intended to understand the needs of those who have crossed over and the communities hosting them; the capacity of the Colombian government and other local and international organizations to respond; and how Mercy Corps might be able to add value and fill gaps in the current response.

During Mercy Corps’ assessment people said that they need three things above all else: legal status in Colombia, a job and healthcare and food.

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“We did not come here to be parasites,” says one Venezuelan migrant in Riohacha. “All we want is to be given the same rights and protections as Colombians. We want to work, but with dignity.”

We are setting up operations in Riohacha, in the department of La Guajira, and assessing how to best complement the efforts of the Colombian government and other organizations responding to the crisis.

Advocating for the human rights of Venezuelans

We must focus on protecting Venezuelan refugees and migrants, who are incredibly vulnerable, especially women and children.

This protection should include strengthening national asylum systems and supporting access to other legal stay arrangements. It also means providing access to the right to work, healthcare and other basic services.

Without these things, Venezuelan families are at risk of exploitation. They might also resort to negative coping strategies in the face of challenges like lack of legal protection, job opportunities and basic necessities.

Increased engagement and information sharing with Colombian communities and other host communities in the region will also help create awareness of the plight of Venezuelans, foster community acceptance and prevent xenophobia.

What other help is needed

The crisis in Venezuela is not expected to end anytime soon. As it continues, regional and national governments as well as international and local organizations responding to this crisis need funding and coordinated response efforts.

We commend efforts to date to meet the needs of Venezuelans fleeing to Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere, but more remains to be done.

“Regional governments and international and local organizations responding to this crisis need funding and a coordinated response to continue meeting urgent needs and scale up in preparation for a continued exodus from Venezuela,” says Provash Budden, Americas regional director.

The United States government has stepped up and provided over $20 million this last year to respond to the needs of fleeing Venezuelans, including $16 million that Vice President Pence recently announced at the Summit of Americas. Colombia, Brazil and other countries in the region are also using their resources. Unfortunately, the level of needs continues to outpace the available funding.

Recognizing that the United States and other countries in the region cannot meet these needs alone, we support increasing diplomatic engagement with partners in the region and around the world to shore up additional funding and to support a coordinated regional refugee response.

We must do whatever we can to ensure the safety and security of Venezuelan families and prepare for many more families to arrive in the coming months.

How you can help

As the situation worsens, we are committed to helping vulnerable Venezuelan families who are unsure of what the future holds. Our response is only just beginning.

Your help will allow us to do even more to support these families as they cope with the tragedy of losing their homes and livelihoods.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Venezuelan families and families in crisis around the world.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page and spread the word about the millions who need us.

  • Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help families survive, recover and rebuild.