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A US strategy to address Venezuela's regional refugee crisis

A US strategy to address Venezuela's regional refugee crisis
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Two years ago, U.S. officials stood at the Venezuela-Colombia border, insisting that a convoy of desperately needed humanitarian aid be allowed to pass through a military blockade ordered by President Nicolás Maduro.

The convoy was violently rebuffed. As a piece of diplomatic theater, with drama and visuals perfect for a Twitter-driven media, it demonstrated robust U.S. support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, Maduros’ rival as president of Venezuela. 

But in addition to being ineffective — Maduro is still the de facto president and the aid was eventually distributed in Colombiaseveral international NGOs raised concern at the time about the potential to politicize aid in this context and underlined the need for independent humanitarian access.

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Today, while misery continues for Venezuelans at home and abroad, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are beginning to see some signs of hope. As the Biden administration begins to implement its policy in the region, it has an opportunity to engage regional partners to seek more lasting responses to the political, economic and social catastrophe within the country that has forced more than five million Venezuelans to flee the country for a precarious and sometimes hostile existence as refugees. 

The administration has taken an important first step toward more effective engagement by granting Temporary Protected Status, typically given to migrants from countries affected by war or disaster, to Venezuelans living in the U.S. This goes much further than the decision made on the last day of the Trump administration to temporarily halt the deportations of Venezuelans. Temporary Protected Status will give exiled Venezuelans an 18-month reprieve from the fear of deportation, as well as giving them the ability to legally work.

In another auspicious development, which the U.S. should support politically and economically, the government of Colombia has agreed to extend the residency status of Venezuelan refugees living in the country for 10 years. Colombia hosts 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees, the most of any country. Although domestic and other considerations may play a role in Colombia’s decision, providing humanitarian assistance and planning for a long-term recovery and return is the right one.

The arduous journey of Venezuelan families seeking refuge in neighboring countries of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere has been an under-covered aspect of the Venezuelan crisis. Many escaped grinding poverty as well as political repression, carrying whatever belongings could fit in a suitcase or backpack, traveling by whatever means available, sometimes on foot. Their reception has been varied. Peru, while initially welcoming Venezuelans, granting them a temporary residency permit that allowed them to legally work in the country, has since revoked the status and admits a limited number under restricted conditions. In the work my organization has done with Venezuelan refugees in Peru, we have found they have faced varying levels of xenophobia and discrimination as they try to integrate into their new communities and have difficulty finding work and decent housing and accessing education and health services for their families.

The sentiment in Peru is echoed in Colombia and Ecuador, according to a recent Gallup survey, which found that acceptance of migrants had plummeted from the views recorded just three years earlier, in the early days of the Venezuelan crisis. The fact that the Colombian government took its action in the face of such negative public opinion makes it all the more laudable. 

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The Biden administration should follow up on this opening to help lead regional and other stakeholders in a 10-year plan to constructively engage Venezuela, support countries that are hosting refugees and look ahead to their eventual repatriation. The international community must also step up its support. The humanitarian response to the Venezuelan refugee crisis is severely underfunded, receiving 10 times less than the Syrian refugee crisis, although affecting comparable numbers of people.

While the political and peace agenda in dealing with the Maduro government might be the most difficult, supporting average Venezuelans inside and outside the country may be a place to start. The U.S. should urge other countries in the region to join Colombia in providing legal documentation and protected status for Venezuelan refugees residing in their borders.

Regionally, the administration should work with the international community, including the United Nations, to guarantee basic rights and humanitarian access to Venezuelans in the country and in exile. That includes adjusting sanctions in a way that addresses current suffering. As an independent U.N. human rights expert recently observed, the political crisis, coupled with the European Union/U.S. sanctions regime has  “sparked economic, humanitarian and development crises, devastating the entire population, especially those living in extreme poverty, women, medical workers, individuals with life-threatening diseases and indigenous peoples.” 

Depoliticizing aid and strengthening the humanitarian pipeline and basic infrastructure of support is crucial for these millions of Venezuelans and may even help on the knottier political issues that will require intense and sustained diplomacy. Such a move by the U.S. could mark the first step of a more coherent approach to this regional crisis — one that could see an eventual reshaping of trade, aid, climate and debt policies together with regional partners to jump-start a real building back for the better for Venezuela and its people.

Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus, served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and is a former senior official at NATO. He is also the president and CEO of Corus International, a family of nonprofits and for-profits, including Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health dedicated to alleviating poverty and suffering in the world.