The fall of oil prices and the socialist rule of President Nicolás Maduro has triggered a rapid and growing exodus of Venezuelans. Venezuelans are leaving for various reasons including lack of food, medicine, and access to essential social services, as well as loss of income and insecurity and violence. As the flow continues, regional host countries are facing both increasing difficulties meeting the needs of migrants and domestic pressure to limit Venezuelan immigration.
Conservative estimates show approximately 1.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014. Regional host countries include Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. To the north, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States have experienced an increase in Venezuelan asylum requests.
Countries hosting Venezuelans have been relatively generous, keeping their borders open and offering various forms of protection. Colombia, which has received the majority of Venezuelan migrants, initially granted Venezuelans a Special Stay Permit allowing temporary residence. Later, the Colombian government began to issue Border Mobility Cards. As of February 2018, however, the government stopped granting both of these cards. Argentina and Uruguay, under the Mercosur Residency Agreement, have given Venezuelans unrestricted visas that allow them to live and work in those countries for a renewable period of two years.
In Peru, the government arranged a Temporary Stay Permit. But backlogs have pushed Venezuelans to apply for asylum instead in order to receive work permits faster. Brazil also created a special permit for Venezuelans that grants temporary residence. Meanwhile, Chile launched a Visa of Democratic Responsibility for Venezuelan citizens, providing potential Venezuelan migrants temporary residence for a one-year period. Mexico, Ecuador, and Panama have opted to provide legal stays within existing channels, e.g. their asylum systems.
The variety in approaches is partially rooted in the debate about whether Venezuelans are economic migrants or refugees. The majority of the countries in the region have adopted and implemented the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides a limited definition for who is a refugee. However, the majority of host countries have also adopted the broader definition under the Cartagena Declaration, which extends protection to victims of generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, mass violations of human rights, and other situations that disrupt public order.
Amidst their welcoming disposition, host countries are experiencing internal pressure to prioritize domestic needs. The arrival of Venezuelans has caused concerns relating to the impact on the wages and employment rates of host populations. There is also fear of an increased threat of diseases and epidemics with the fall of Venezuela's health system. Others have emphasized the prospect of increased crime or social tensions. In turn, Mexico and Colombia have reportedly begun to deport Venezuelans, Brazil militarized its northern region, and some host countries have also pulled back on granting special residency permits.
There is consensus that the outflow of Venezuelans will continue, and some experts predict the displacement could surpass the number of Syrians displaced by Syrian the civil war.
A poll, conducted in Venezuela in December 2017 by Consulteres21, found that of those who wanted to leave Venezuela most identified Latin America as their preferred destination. Nevertheless, the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela and the ongoing and increasing exodus could have implications for the United States. For example, the rate of Venezuelan visa overstays could continue to grow. According to a recent report by Department of Homeland Security, Venezuela was responsible for about 10 percent of all the visa overstays for regular short-term visas during FY 2017, vs. 8 percent the prior fiscal year. Venezuelan emigrants historically have been well educated and of a higher socioeconomic bracket, but the educational and socioeconomic profile of Venezuelan emigrants is changing. An increasing number of Venezuelans leaving the country have lower educational attainment and socioeconomic status than those who left in the past. It is possible that this cohort will be more willing to make the arduous trek through Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border as circumstances worsen in their home country and the hospitality of neighboring countries continues to be tested.