Who Will Take Venezuela's Huddled Masses?

6 MINS READAug 1, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Venezuelans gather at the departure area of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Caracas.
(LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

As Venezuela's government and economy remain in calamity, the country faces a third national crisis in the form of skyrocketing emigration. During the next several years, Venezuela will see accelerated inflation and worsening food and medicine shortages with no easy way out of its economic woes. Given these difficulties, Venezuelans will likely begin leaving the country at an increasing rate.

Dissatisfied Venezuelans have been leaving the country for years. By one estimate, 2 million citizens have departed since 1999, the year Hugo Chavez took office as president. Many of these migrants headed to the United States, Spain and Colombia. And in recent years, the pace of departures has risen sharply, with nearly 450,000 Venezuelans entering Colombia in just the first four months of 2017 — many of them likely staying permanently or moving on to another country.

Until recently, many Venezuelan emigrants have been members of the country's upper and middle classes. But in the wake of extreme consumer price inflation, social unrest and high crime rates, that is set to change. Poorer Venezuelans will be driven out in much higher numbers than before. And though this emigration primarily will affect Venezuela's neighbors like Brazil, Colombia and nearby Caribbean islands at first, the flow of refugees could eventually reach the United States through existing smuggling routes.

A New Class of Emigrant

Venezuela's poorest citizens are staring down a future marked by a sharply deteriorating quality of life, and mass migration is almost guaranteed. According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation in Venezuela may reach 4,000 percent year-on-year by 2020, spurred by the two-pronged problem of declining oil production and the limited availability of foreign currency to finance imports. Heavy sanctions against the country's oil sector would sap government revenue and exacerbate the problem. Combined with a thriving yet prohibitively expensive black market, this inflation will dramatically increase food shortages in the coming years. And outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses and other communicable diseases like cholera, along with rising crime levels, will further devastate the lives of the country's poor. Ultimately, faced with the threat of extreme hardship and, in many cases, starvation, huge numbers of Venezuelans will choose to depart.

A number of core factors could affect the scale of the exodus. Severe political unrest, such as a violent coup or coup attempt, would likely drive people from the country at a fast rate. Similarly, declining oil income would in turn worsen the economy and increase emigration numbers. And even if the government of President Nicolas Maduro cedes power in coming years, any subsequent administration, regardless of political party, would still have to deal with severe financial problems. The general trend is clear: Venezuela is on the brink of a mass migration.

Destinations Known and Unknown

But where will all these Venezuelans go, and how will they get there? Over the past several years, air travel to and from Venezuela has steadily dried up, driven by a shortage of foreign currency. Airlines have been unable to receive complete compensation for ticket sales when attempting to exchange their bolivars, and in turn, they've cut back on flights, leaving Venezuela with fewer air connections to the outside world. Major airlines such as Alitalia, Avianca, United Airlines and Delta Airlines have pulled out of the country, and American Airlines remains the only U.S.-based carrier providing regular service there. Additionally, inflation has had the added consequence of boosting ticket prices. So while air travel will remain one avenue for Venezuelans to depart the country, the coming wave of migrants may rely more on land and sea routes.

Without affordable, available air travel, desperate Venezuelans will head to neighboring countries like Colombia and Brazil on foot or by boat. And since Venezuela is part of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), its citizens will likely find it easy to enter other member nations and remain there. Although Venezuela was suspended from the bloc in December 2016 over charter violations, its citizens retain the right to travel visa-free to other Mercosur countries. In Colombia, an associate member of the bloc, the political party Democratic Center has even proposed a humanitarian visa for Venezuelans, which would make it easier for them to live and work there in the coming years.

Mercosur Countries Could See a Wave of Venezuelan Migrants
An influx of Venezuelans into neighboring countries will, of course, have political effects, which depend largely on where the migrants go and who pays for their housing and food. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flowing into Colombia each year, for example, may strain services and increase job competition at a local level, particularly in areas near the border. However, the impact of Venezuelan refugees on its neighbors may be blunted if these arrivals spread out across their new countries or transit to other nations. And assistance from international humanitarian relief agencies, such as those operating under the United Nations, would also reduce immediate national costs and ease the logistical burden of housing and feeding refugees.
Nearby states will most certainly absorb the majority of Venezuelan migrants, most of whom will immigrate legally. But given their relative poverty compared to those of the past, many Venezuelan emigrants may move on to other countries — particularly the United States — illegally. After all, even relatively unskilled service jobs in the United States are often more lucrative than those in Latin America. And there is already a smuggling route through Colombia operated by the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. African and South Asian migrants use the path to reach Central America and Mexico before eventually crossing the southern border of the United States, and Venezuelan emigrants will likely rely on this route as well. Within a few years, the United States could see Venezuelans making up a much greater portion of those crossing the U.S. border illegally, despite the country's distance from Venezuela.
Over the past two decades, emigrating from Venezuela to countries outside of its immediate vicinity has largely been a matter of buying a plane ticket and leaving on a visa to destinations like the United States, Canada or Europe. Certainly, some Venezuelans overstayed their visas, but Venezuelan immigration to these parts of the world has largely been accomplished through legal means. The coming wave of migrants will be different, though. They will be in more dire financial straits and will not be able to easily qualify for visas to leave the country. So over the next several years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans may be forced to join the ranks of undocumented migrants abroad, taking on all of the difficulties that such a life entails.

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