Venezuelan refugees carry their belongings across the Tachira river border between Colombia and Venezuela, August 2015
Jose Gomez / REUTERS

Picture your salary and life’s savings depleted by hyperinflation. The local store is missing many basic food products, and the pharmacy has no stock of the medicines you need on a daily or weekly basis. The only hospital in town is nonfunctional because it doesn’t carry basic medical supplies and even lacks running water, and schools are closed because of a lack of electricity. You leave your hometown and travel more than 2,000 miles by foot to the capital of a neighboring country, entirely uncertain what your future holds. When you arrive, you’re greeted with a xenophobic speech by a local politician, who accuses you of stealing jobs from locals and committing crimes.

This scenario has become all too familiar to migrants and refugees in Latin America, where 2.6 million Venezuelans, the vast majority of them since 2015, have poured into neighboring countries such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru as conditions at home have become unbearable.

Most governments—Colombia’s being the lead example—have welcomed the Venezuelans with open arms, hastening to help them integrate into the local economy and initiating campaigns to combat xenophobia. However, in some countries—Peru and Brazil, for example—local populations and populist politicians have stoked fear and prejudice. This summer, rioters in the town of Boa Vista on the border of Brazil and Venezuela chanted, “Out, out, out! Go back to Venezuela!” as they tried to block the road that thousands of Venezuelans have been using to cross into Brazil. Reacting to the news of a violent robbery committed by a small handful of Venezuelans, Brazilian rioters set fire to the belongings of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, forcing many of them to turn back.

Such stories of resistance and hostility toward migrants have become familiar the world over. The arrival of millions of Syrians in Europe since 2011 has occasioned populist resentment that largely feeds on linguistic, cultural, and religious differences. But Latin American xenophobia toward Venezuelan migrants cannot be explained in the same terms. Latin America is arguably the most culturally integrated region in the world. Venezuelans largely share their hosts’ language, religion, holidays, and traditions. What, then, drives xenophobia toward Venezuelan migrants and refugees?

Populist politicians such as Ricardo Belmont, a former candidate for mayor of Lima, Peru, stoke economic anxieties by spreading fear that the new arrivals will threaten locals’ livelihoods. There is little basis for such claims: research shows that when they are allowed to work, migrants usually help local economies rather than hurt them.

THE VENEZUELAN EXAMPLE

Evidence from different countries shows that the entry of new migrants into the labor force does not usually displace locals from jobs or hurt their salaries, except sometimes minimally and temporarily. In fact, migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than locals, because the act of migrating is most common among “risk takers,” the same type of people who are likely to create businesses. Businesses started by migrants in turn create jobs, many of which go to locals. Studies in Italythe United Kingdom, and Malaysia also show that when migrants are able to work, they are far less likely to engage in criminal activity.

One Latin American country provides an excellent example of open-door migration policies that benefited both the migrants and the host country: Venezuela. In 1945, when Eduardo Mendoza Goiticoa—grandfather of the prominent opposition leader and political prisoner Leopoldo López—was appointed minister of agriculture by President Rómulo Betancourt, he also took the lead in promoting immigration to help boost the economy. In fact, under his leadership, Venezuela was among the first countries that officially embraced the creation of the International Refugee Organization (precursor to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to help Europeans who were searching for new homes following the devastation of World War II. During that period, Venezuela welcomed tens of thousands of European refugees.

Venezuela was among the first countries that officially embraced the creation of the International Refugee Organization to help Europeans who were searching for new homes following the devastation of World War II.

The policies Betancourt and Mendoza put in place survived multiple governments. Venezuela became a magnet for migrants and a poster child for successful integration. In the 1950s, the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez continued promoting European immigration. By 1961, there were 530,000 foreigners in Venezuela, constituting about 7.5 percent of the population. They came mostly from Italy, Spain, and Portugal, but also from Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia; some came from the Middle East, primarily from Lebanon and Syria. The Venezuelan economy boomed in the mid-1970s, drawing migrants from Latin American countries that included Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. Many were simply looking for better opportunities than were available in their home countries, while others sought refuge from cruel military dictatorships.

While Venezuela offered a home to these newcomers, it also benefited from their hard work, thanks to integration policies established as early as the late nineteenth century. Guzmán Blanco, who served three separate terms as president of Venezuela between 1870 and 1887, foresaw that Venezuela would benefit from accepting diverse foreigners. His government invested in building “mixed colonies,” agricultural communities where migrants worked alongside natives. Isolated communities of migrants became the exception rather than the rule. Thanks to such foundational policies, foreigners in Venezuela rarely experienced prejudice.

Today, most of the foreigners who arrived in Venezuela decades ago, together with their offspring, have left the country as a result of the disastrous policies Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro inflicted upon this once prosperous nation.

MIGRANTS OR REFUGEES?

The lesson from Venezuela’s history is that the sooner receiving communities integrate migrants, the sooner migrants will be able to visibly contribute to those communities (which in turn should help inoculate against xenophobia). Successful integration requires the migrants to invest in themselves, their children, and their receiving communities. For this to happen, migrants need to know that they will be accepted and allowed to remain in the medium to long term, as well as get work permits and access to services such as health care and education. Most countries have found ways to give legal status to fleeing Venezuelans who have proper documentation, often only a passport. But the increasing number of Venezuelans who are crossing the border without any documents will face difficulties. Passports, for instance, are almost impossible to get in Venezuela because there are simply not enough resources to produce them. Desperate citizens often pay up to $2,000 as a bribe, over 68 times the monthly minimum wage, to expedite their passport issuance.

A military officer delivers a Venezuelan family their passports as they apply for refugee status at the Pacaraima border control station in Roraima State, Brazil, August 2018
A military officer delivers a Venezuelan family their passports as they apply for refugee status at the Pacaraima border control station in Roraima State, Brazil, August 2018
Nacho Doce / REUTERS

The Colombian government has gone above and beyond by making work permits available to most Venezuelan migrants, even to the 450,000 of them who entered the country illegally. But Colombia is the exception rather than the rule. Other countries (Peru, for example) are now demanding that Venezuelans submit passports instead of national ID cards before they may be permitted to enter, let alone stay.

For Venezuelans without documents, integration will be an uphill battle. But there is one way to bypass this constraint: recognize and accept fleeing Venezuelans as refugees, meaning that they were forced to leave Venezuela. But on what legal grounds?

In 1984, ten Latin American countries signed the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which defines refugees as “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”  

Venezuelans—particularly the more vulnerable ones—lack basic freedoms and are victims of political persecution.

Venezuelans—particularly the more vulnerable ones such as poor people, women, children, and vocal critics of the Maduro regime—lack basic freedoms and are victims of political persecution. They often suffer human rights violations, in the form of government crackdowns on protests, arbitrary detentions, and the use of torture. Moreover, their access to food, health care, and education has been severely curtailed by a man-made crisis that has resulted in malnourishment and often death. Maduro and his regime have refused to give the population access to humanitarian assistance that would alleviate its suffering.

Many Venezuelans could even fit the narrower definition of a refugee: someone who flees as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution based on personal opinions or political affiliation. The regime in Caracas, for example, has begun conditioning access to social programs and subsidies on having a document known as “the Fatherland ID,” which is also used to track and collect information related to the voting behavior of individuals.

As with other refugee crises, the millions of Venezuelans who have left their homes are not migrants searching for better opportunities but rather refugees fleeing for their lives. Recognizing fleeing Venezuelans as refugees would be an acknowledgment of a reality that can no longer be ignored.

When Betancourt and Mendoza created an international body to assist refugees back in 1948, they probably never imagined it would one day be busy assisting millions of Venezuelans trying to leave their collapsing country. For decades, Venezuela welcomed millions of foreigners who contributed to, and benefited from, the country’s prosperity. The countries on the receiving end of today’s migration would be wise to reciprocate by opening their doors to Venezuelans.

  • DANY BAHAR is David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an Associate at the Harvard Center for International Development. 
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