The Persistence of the Venezuelan Migrant and Refugee Crisis

The outflow of refugees and migrants from Venezuela is the largest displacement crisis in the world, with almost 7.7 million migrants and refugees as of August 2023. This is an even greater number than the displacement of Syrians or Ukrainians outside of their countries. Despite these numbers, the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis, quite unfortunately, has climbed down the list of political and policy priorities, with fewer headlines in the media and sporadic policy conversations in Washington.

On one hand, there is a sense that this is the new normal for the region and that host countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will have to continue to manage the influx of 6.4 million Venezuelans and counting as best as they can. On the other hand, it seems that neighboring countries across the region are willing to continue discussions on how best to address migration and forced displacement, but by removing the Venezuelan political focus from the center of the migrant and refugee discussion. The truth is, however, that this is a crisis that persists, and is likely to continue as long as the root causes are not addressed.

The efforts from the region to respond have been commendable thus far. They have varied but have generally followed a spirit of regional solidarity as well as pragmatism in the wake of large-scale Venezuelan inflows. Important regional innovations have also characterized this recent period. Receiving countries in the Americas have extended options to displaced Venezuelans to regularize their status (often with financial support and encouragement from the United States), and other policies have also sought to ensure access to the labor market, health services, and basic education.

Despite these efforts, the reality is that the region is still recovering from Covid-19 setbacks. Venezuelan migrants are now leaving countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, where they had originally migrated, due to low salaries, inflation, and lack of jobs, and are making the dangerous trek to reach the U.S. border. To understand the scale of these flows, going by the number of Venezuelans crossing the Darién Gap, the remote stretch of rainforest located between Colombia and Panama, a record 400,000 migrants have crossed during the first nine months of this year, according to Panamanian officials, and Venezuelans account for an estimated 60 percent of those, namely around 240,000, the most of any nationality. In search of the American dream, record numbers of migrants have also reached the U.S.-Mexico border, with 262,633 Venezuelans having crossed just in 2023, up from 189,520 in 2022.

The root causes that generated this unprecedented flow of migrants and refugees, including democratic breakdown, repression, and a lack of basic human rights, remain unchanged in Venezuela. There is also a deep economic crisis driven by devastating policies and a kleptocracy that has characterized the political landscape during the last 20 years. There are also challenges for Venezuelans in receiving countries, such as limited access to legal documentation, basic services, economic opportunities, and rising xenophobia. In addition, with the sometimes tumultuous changes in governments in Latin America, Venezuelans prefer to leave receiving countries than to go through another national crisis. All these elements will remain throughout 2023, and therefore migration flows should be expected to continue, and even increase in 2024.

The Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis is still a crisis, and it does not look like it will fix itself anytime soon. Here are some reasons why.

Venezuelans continue to migrate, even if it means risking their own lives.

The challenges faced by the 7,710,887 displaced Venezuelans throughout the world, and the stories of so many of them moving throughout the Americas demonstrates the danger they are in—especially when they attempt to cross the harrowing Darién Gap. This 575,000 hectares of jungle between Panama and Colombia has become one of the Western Hemisphere’s most pressing focal points of the crisis. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), migrants are exposed to “multiple human rights violations, including sexual violence, murders, disappearances, trafficking, robbery and intimidation by organized criminal groups.”

Despite this life-threatening journey—which can take almost 10 days—the numbers, as reported by Panamanian authorities, have gone up exponentially, from the almost unthinkable record of nearly 250,000 in 2022 to more than 330,000 in 2023. A gut-wrenching element is that one in five of these migrants were children. Regardless of initiatives such as the Humanitarian Parole for Venezuelans in the United States, and the Safe Mobility initiative (which was announced by the United States government to provide legal pathways to the United States for refugees and migrants in South and Central America) migrants continue to cross the jungle. In August alone, almost 82,000 people made the trek through the Darién, by far the largest single-month total on record. The United States has also tried joint efforts with the Colombian and Panamanian authorities to end the “irregular movement of people” by signing an ambitious agreement in April. But the countries’ expectations to end migration through the Darién Gap, reduce poverty, and create jobs and new legal pathways, all in just 60 days, only confirmed they were unrealistic from the start. Unless more comprehensive and impactful action to address this humanitarian crisis is prioritized, also focusing on addressing the root causes, other political and criminal interests will continue to make a profit from the desperation of these Venezuelans.

Latin American countries cannot take on the burden of providing humanitarian assistance alone.

According to the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR’s Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP), by the end of 2023, it is projected that there will be 6.83 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin America, with over 5 million of them in need of humanitarian assistance. This is simply too large a number for a region that has not recovered from preexisting social inequalities that Covid-19 worsened, or structural problems fueled by economic recession and political upheaval.

Although Latin America has been an example of migrant integration with its open-door policy from countries like Colombia, this year, more than 4 million displaced Venezuelans throughout the region cannot fully access food, shelter, healthcare, education and formal employment, according to the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V) platform. Under these conditions, Venezuelans in receiving countries with jobs in the informal labor market will have a harder time becoming self-sufficient.

For example, according to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Chile, almost 70,000 Venezuelans have left Chile since 2021. The high cost of living and lack of economic opportunities are among the top reasons for leaving the country. In the case of Colombia, while no official data is available on the number of Venezuelans with temporary protection status (TPS) who have migrated, many of those going to the United States say they decided to leave Colombia because they did not earn enough to support their families. Considering almost all countries in Central America and Mexico require visas for Venezuelans, the only viable option for migrants is to continue heading north.

With the Biden administration’s announcement redesignating Venezuela as continuing to be eligible for TPS for all who arrived in the United States before July 31, 2023, and with over 472,000 potentially benefiting from the measure and quickly allowing them to work legally, the magnetic pull north continues to be a factor. A recent more restrictive measure, however, to resume removals of Venezuelans at the border who do not have a legal basis to remain in the United States may serve to slow down the growth in numbers. This move also sheds light on what seems to be continued quiet U.S. negotiations with Venezuela, suggesting a sense of normalcy is being sought and that indicate that the country is “safe enough” to deport its citizens back to the undemocratic regime that forced them to leave. After the announcement, between October 18 and 23, the United States has already deported over 220 Venezuelans in two flights, and they were alarmingly received in country by Maduro’s security and intelligence forces: SEBIN, PNB and GNB.

The bottom line here is that there is an urgent need for more international support. Only 12 percent of the $1.72 billion the R4V requested for the 2023–2024 Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan has been collected. In 2022, that number was 27 percent, confirming that the lack of funds this year is directly proportional to the reduced attention this crisis has across the international community. Without a doubt, humanitarian aid is critical to ease Venezuelan suffering across the region. Although the 2.7 billion dollars that the U.S. government has provided since 2017 has been very generous, it is unfortunately not enough to support the Venezuelans who have had to leave their country nor to address the underlying conditions that caused them to migrate in the first place. The Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis is probably the most underfunded displacement crisis in the world, even beyond the Rohingya or the South Sudanese.

The repercussions of this migration crisis are also being felt in cities across the United States. The fact that the situation has worsened is evidenced by recent declarations by New York mayor Eric Adams who has said that the ongoing migrant crisis “will destroy New York City.” Adams said 110,000 asylum seekers have passed through New York city since April 2022 and the issue is creating a 12 billion-dollar budget deficit. Other cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. are also reaching breaking points. Despite efforts from mayors to accommodate Venezuelan migrants, city shelters, police stations, and aid services are at maximum capacity. Hopefully all authorities, especially at the state and local level, can find longer-term solutions, such as requesting an increase in federal funding to attend to this influx, expediting mechanisms to grant work authorizations so that migrants can escape informal labor, and advocating for a more permanent extension of temporary protective status for all Venezuelans.

The longer the Maduro regime stays in power, the more people will flee.

Opposition primaries held on October 22, with the participation of over 2.3 million people, show that Venezuelans have not lost hope in the electoral route to regain democracy in Venezuela, especially when the candidate María Corina Machado won with over 90 percent of the votes. Over 132,000 votes came from the powerful force of the Venezuelan diaspora. If the diaspora is considered as a "state," Venezuelans abroad are in first place in participation in percentage terms (37.35 percent), well above the national average (12.83 percent) placing the diaspora among the five “electoral states” with the highest participation in terms of absolute numbers. This amply demonstrates that allowing migrants and refugees to register to vote will be an important condition to enable free and fair elections in 2024. Even though the U.S. administration agreed to broadly lift sanctions on the oil sector in exchange for democratic conditions for the 2024 electoral process, the regime still needs to keep their part of the deal. Unfortunately, today, that seems far-fetched when Maduro is calling the primaries a fraud and the Supreme Tribunal is opening investigations to persecute the members of the National Primary Committee who organized the event. 

If no indication of regime change seems in sight and the 2024 presidential elections are not free or fair, upticks in migration should be expected, as Venezuelans will continue to leave the country in search of better opportunities. Therefore, it is critical not to overlook this migrant crisis nor normalize it, as it is evidence of the persistence of the democratic and economic breakdown in this country, which continues to be a threat to the stability of the region and the world.

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Americas Program.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent official positions of the Organization of American States (OAS).