Venezuela’s Refugees Are an Asset, Not a Problem


Hunger, economic collapse, repression and Covid-19: Venezuelans have seen just about everything over the last year. To millions of them, a safe harbor in another Latin American country was the only exit. The gun battles between security forces and guerrillas which forced at least 3,100 residents in the western state of Apure to flee over the border to Colombia in late March were only the latest example. Yet even such desperate escapes are looking more fraught as a continental backlash builds against the Western Hemisphere’s most castigated diaspora.

An estimated 5.4 million Venezuelans have quit their failing homeland, 85% of them landing in another country in Latin America or the Caribbean. They represent the world’s biggest humanitarian calamity after that of war-torn Syria, but with a fraction of the assistance and attention. Venezuela’s refugee crisis has drawn $1.3 billion in pledges for relief, even as the Syrian refugee crisis has raised $19.9 billion, according to economist Dany Bahar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The pandemic has jackknifed one emergency atop another, as regional authorities fighting contagion and crashing economies seal borders and turn back illegal entrants. An estimated 122,000 Venezuelan emigrants have doubled back home from Colombia alone since the novel coronavirus outbreak; those who stick it out abroad confront escalating hostility and scapegoating, sometimes from presumably sympathetic authorities.

Unquestionably, the refugee onslaught adds to the burdens of Venezuela’s continental neighbors, who must already tend to their own vulnerable populations. The pandemic has destroyed 34 million jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean, the International Labor Organization has estimated. Yet the escalating hostility to newcomers in need not only compounds an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy, it is historically shortsighted and economically obtuse.

The privations of Latin America’s health emergency might be far greater without the labors of these ubiquitous strangers. A forthcoming International Labor Organization health report has found that many of the 20,000 migrant Venezuelan physicians working in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru helped fight the pandemic. More than 10,000 Venezuelan nurses are on call in Argentina, Brazil and Peru.

Venezuelans are even more heavily represented among frontline service workers, running errands, fetching groceries and filling prescriptions for the homebound population.

Whether willing migrants, who often bring capital and diplomas, or refugees, who come in desperation, dislocated Venezuelans are an asset disguised as a problem. They peddle goods and services that buoy markets and boost tax receipts. Venezuelans who fled over the border to Roraima, in northern Brazil, kicked in enough taxes in 2018 (around $18 million) to compensate the government’s cost of processing them.

Venezuelan expatriates typically are younger on average than the societies that host them. They are also better educated than their adoptive peers, representing a brain gain for their hosts. With proper contracts and residency permits, ILO experts argued in a recent study, host countries could leverage their skills, experience and grit to boost growth and even enhance the region’s chronically laggardly productivity. “We think of migrants as vulnerable, but they produce, consume and contribute to societies and the economy,” said ILO migration specialist Francesco Carella. “If you protect and recognize them, that’s advantageous to the host state.”

Consider Colombia, where Venezuelans are overrepresented in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Before Covid-19 at least 12 Venezuelans worked in construction for every seven Colombians, while three times as many Venezuelans worked in high-contact hotel and restaurant jobs. These laborers will be crucial to reviving Colombia’s post-pandemic economy, and yet because most of them work off-book, with only a verbal contract and no residency papers, the recovery will be hobbled. “Because of their invisibility, what we are seeing today is not representative of the transformational contribution Venezuelans could make to their destination countries,” the Brookings Institution’s Bahar told me.  “If nations could pull these people out of the shadows they could make a real contribution to the host economy.”

Latin Americans are no strangers to the damage and injustices of a gates-closed policy. They led the world in opposing former U.S. president Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall.  South and Central American nations took pride in embracing the human jetsam of world wars, pogroms and misery. Venezuela, notably, took in neighboring dissidents, misfits and exiles fleeing the dictatorships that ruled the region in the late twentieth century.

Yet for decades the overall share of foreign nationals remained small and easily metabolized by relatively tolerant societies. Shifting demographics may explain the recent dyspepsia. Led by Venezuelans, Chile’s foreign-born population jumped six-fold from 1.3% of the general population in 2002 to nearly 8% in 2019. Peru has taken in around 830,000 Venezuelans, most of them in the last few years. Nowhere has the inflow been as intense as in Colombia, now a refuge for close to 2 million Venezuelans, nearly 36% of the entire Venezuelan diaspora.

Now Venezuelans in Colombia are regarded not so much as guests but nuisances, mendicants or even criminals. No matter that claims of job-stealing or wage suppression by migrants have yet to be substantiated. A recent study of rising crime in Colombia’s border regions found that Venezuelans are more likely to be victims of violence than its perpetrators.

Such nativist narratives are almost a cliché in Europe and the U.S., but troublingly new in a region with a legacy of tolerance and surnames from the Balkans to the Levant. When hungry Venezuelans poured over the Bolivian Andes into tiny Colchane, in northern Chile, they were met with nationalist pushback. “We cannot accept that Chile turns into a Venezuela,” said right-wing presidential hopeful Jose Antonio Kast. More surprisingly, Bogota mayor Claudia Lopez, perhaps Latin America’s most prominent openly LGBTQ politician, who campaigned on a banner of inclusiveness, joined the basher chorus after a high-profile homicide tied to a Venezuelan migrant. “We have very violent Venezuelan immigrants here,” she said recently. “…they murder first and then they steal…What guarantees are left for Colombians?”  

The backlash makes Colombian President Ivan Duque’s recent initiative to extend temporary protected status to expatriate Venezuelans all the more remarkable. Duque’s policy grants up to 1.8 million migrants and refugees protection for 10 years, clearing the way for them to work formal jobs and receive health benefits, including Covid-19 vaccines. While the move rankled many Colombians, migration experts say the policy could help protect domestic workers by eliminating the incentive to underpay illegals.  “When migrants get legal status they enter the labor market on a level playing field,” said Carella. “That means it won’t cost less to hire them.”

Venezuela’s refugee crisis was a hemispheric challenge even before the pandemic. Covid-19 has made it worse. Yet both emergencies have shown that shunning neighbors in need is not just doubling down on injustice; it’s also self-harm. Latin America has had enough of that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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