MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 9th of January, 2020. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It. And we’re so glad you are! Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: the Venezuelan diaspora.
Despite having the highest proven oil reserves in the world, the policies of socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro have created a financial crisis. Venezuela is now one of the poorest nations in the world.
To escape poverty, violence, and food shortages, more than 4-and-a-half-million Venezuelans have fled the country in the past 6 years.
BASHAM: Most of those fleeing went to nearby countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Brazil, and Peru. But the welcome extended by these nations may be wearing out.
Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Pucallpa, Peru sits on the banks of the Ucayali River near the country’s border with Brazil.
AUDIO: [Sound of Pucallpa market]
The city’s sidewalks spill over with vendors selling fruit. Mangos, camu camus, and granadillas—all grown in the surrounding Amazonian jungle.
This place is very different from Douglas Herrara’s home town of Cumana—a historic city on Venezuela’s north coast.
HERRARA: I love my sea. I love the beach.
Herrara fled to Pucallpa, Peru two years ago. He talks to me from his kitchen as his family prepares dinner.
Before Venezuela’s downward spiral, he worked for a Chinese oil company. He owned two houses, four cars, and a motorcycle.
When inflation and supply shortages set in, Herrara began selling his possessions to buy bread, chicken, and gas. Eventually having money didn’t matter. There was nothing to buy.
HERRARA: I decide to, to get out of Venezuela because one day my daughter asked me for bread, “Daddy give me bread,” And I remember I told her, I cannot give you bread.
But buying a way out of the country also proved difficult. The family had passports, but bus and plane ticket prices soared. It was hard to know who to trust and where to go.
Finally, an old acquaintance in Peru offered to help Herrara find work and housing in Pucallpa. Herrara left first and four months later sent for his family. Twenty other relatives have now followed them to Peru.
HERRARA: God has work in my life.. Very clear. I can see that here. I can see that here and I see him everyday.
Feline Freier is a professor at the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru where she studies Latin American immigration. She says millions of other Venezuelans have made similar journeys.
FREIER: Talk about 1.6 million Venezuelans in Colombia. The second most important destination of the region is Peru. Again, the real number of people residing is probably at least 1 million. And then we have Ecuador. And after that, Chile, Argentina and Brazil…
Feline Freier says South American nations have some of the world’s most generous policies toward refugees and immigrants.
But there’s a gap between what’s written and what’s practiced. When the refugee crisis first began six years ago, governments granted Venezuelan migrants some sort of legal status when they arrived. For example, the Herrara family is in Peru under tourist visas.
But some estimates project another 4 million people could flee Venezuela in the coming years. Governments in neighboring countries fear that could be too many people for their economies—and public opinion—to support.
FREIER: They’re afraid of losing control and having to accept essentially however many Venezuelans decide to come to their countries. Imagine the United States receiving within one and a half years, a million people? That would be a challenge in both logistic and political terms for any country in the world, right?
In 2017, Panama started requiring Venezuelan refugees to have a valid passport and visa to enter the country. Last year, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia followed suit. But Feline Freier says those documents are nearly impossible for poor Venezuelans to obtain.
FREIER: Getting a new passport right now in Venezuela amounts to between 800 and thousands of dollars because of corruption.
And the lines to apply for visas are long. In Peru, the next available visa interview appointment is in 2021.
But stricter immigration laws won’t stop refugees from coming, says Geoff Ramsey. He’s a human rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America. Ramsey says it will just mean there are more undocumented refugees in countries vulnerable to exploitation.
RAMSEY: They won’t be able to get a health insurance. They’re not able to work in the formal sector, so they’re stuck working in the informal economy, you know, selling cigarettes and coffee in the streets and things like that. There’s difficulty for children as well.
Ramsey says to keep this from happening, the international community needs to intervene. The United States has provided half of the financial aid given to 17 South and Latin American countries to help them respond to the refugee crisis. But Ramsey says America should increase the number of refugees it takes in to help ease the burden on other countries.
And, he argues, international aid given to host countries should be contingent on them giving Venezuelans a legal status.
RAMSEY: I think it’s in the region’s interest to register these Venezuelans.
As for the Herrara family, while life is still hard, they’ve found peace in their new home.
HERRARA: Every day I can eat, I can rest.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Pucallpa, Peru.