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UN Calls for Refugee Protection for 3.7 million Venezuelans

The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has called for those fleeing Venezuela to receive international refugee protection. An immense 3.7 million people have now left Venezuela, mostly on foot, to escape from the worsening political crisis, leaving over 3,000 children stateless. The crisis has now developed into a humanitarian emergency, leaving millions of people in poverty without access to basic needs such as food and healthcare.

In an exclusive IOHR TV interview with Alexandria Castro Franco, Academic and Director at the Observatory of International Migration, spoke about the impact the crisis has had on migration and a growing population of stateless children.

“All these things create an environment in which the lack of institutions, the lack of supplies but also of guarantees of human rights protection, forces people to flee out of the country.”


Due to the rapidly escalating numbers of Venezuelans fleeing, the UNHCR has issued new guidelines for neigbouring countries, calling on them to allow them to cross borders and provide them with appropriate protections and treatment.

“UNHCR calls on States to ensure that Venezuelans, regardless of their legal status, are not deported or otherwise forcibly returned to Venezuela.”

Venezuelans are currently leaving at a rate of 3,000 to 5,000 people per day in what is the greatest mass exodus in modern history. The desperate situation has driven thousands to endanger their lives in pursuit of fleeing Venezuela. Just this week, at least 20 people were missing, presumed dead, after their boat capsized in rough seas of the Caribbean as they tried to make an escape from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago.

Venezuela in crisis

The ongoing oppression of president Nicolás Maduro has resulted in a socio-economic crisis that has plunged South America into what researchers are calling the “worst economic damage in Latin American history”.

Poverty has doubled in Venezuela since 2014, with around 80% of households now classed as ‘food insecure’.

An April 2019 UN report estimates that 94 percent of the 28.8 million population of Venezuela now live in poverty, a further 2.8 million are in need of healthcare including around 300,000 people whose lives are at risk because they have been unable to access medicines or treatment for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and HIV for over a year.
Violent crackdowns by security services on civil society have resulted in more than 12,500 people being arbitrarily arrested since 2014 in connection with protests. The use of excessive force has been prevalent, with human rights groups reporting the abuse and torture of detainees including severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, and sexual abuse. At the peak of civil unrest over 40 people were killed by security services within just a few weeks.


By the end of 2018 around 460,000 Venezuelans had applied for asylum mostly in neighboring countries in Latin America and the Caribbean mainly in Peru, the United States, Brazil and Spain. Some have legal stay in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Ecuador. William Spindler, a spokesman for UNHCR commented on Latin America’s generous response to the Venezuelan crisis so far:

“In practice, Latin America has been very generous to Venezuelans,”

“Some eight or nine countries now accept expired Venezuelan passports [as legal ID], there are few other places in the world where that would happen.”

Political background

The current political crisis evolved after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez in March 2013. Chavez’s death marked the end of his 14-year long rule and his successor was his vice-President Nicolás Maduro who holds power to date.

Venezuela’s crisis has heightened tensions with other nations. Since January 2019, Venezuela and the US have cut diplomatic ties, with the US recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president. The US is one of more than 50 countries, including the UK, France, Spain and Canada, that recognised Guaidó as president in a bid to remove Maduro from power.

International response

UNICEF has said that the deteriorating conditions inside Venezuela mean that its youngest citizens are most at risk. Lack of access to health, education, protection and nutrition services worsen the humanitarian crisis as thousands of families look for food for their children. So far, UNICEF has provided nutrition programs to almost 190,000 children inside Venezuela, but UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said that the agency,

“cannot do all it wants to in Venezuela.”

A UN report of April 2019 reported on the priority of humanitarian needs in Venezuela and noted that,

“The politicization of humanitarian assistance in the context of the crisis makes delivery of assistance in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence more difficult,”

In his address to a press conference welcoming US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary called for increased pressure on the Venezuelan regime,

“I am deeply concerned by the plight of the Venezuelan people who have suffered so much at the hands of Maduro.”

“We must intensify pressure on the regime, including through potential further sanctions, and condemn those who are propping up Maduro, particularly Russia whose deployment of military personnel in Caracas will achieve nothing except prolong the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”

International Observatory of Human Right’s Director Valerie Peay echoed the calls of the UNHCR,

“The crisis in Venezuela is now at a tipping point. It is essential that the international community plays its part in ensuring the rights that afford humanitarian and refugee protections to both the people in need inside Venezuela, as well as those that flee.”

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