Starved Venezuelans looking for an escape from the socialist tyranny controlling the government of their homeland have begun to flee in droves, challenging the immigration agencies of nations around the world.
The Venezuelan government does not release figures showing how many nationals flee the nation every year, though even these would be little trustworthy given how many have reportedly fled illegally to a variety of Latin American destinations and beyond. El Confidencial, a Spanish-language publication, cites Venezuelan experts at putting the total population of the global Venezuelan diaspora at up to two million since late dictator Hugo Chávez took power.
Facing an impending famine exacerbated by chronic government corruption, extremely limited political rights, and a near complete lack of basic health institutions, the first stop for many fleeing Venezuelans is either Colombia or Brazil, the nations it borders. On the Colombian border, many Venezuelans in Western Táchira state do not look to stay: they cross the border whenever possible to buy food in neighboring Cúcuta, Colombia. Dictator Nicolás Maduro’s attempts to shut the border – including the expulsion of Colombian nationals in raids using what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos described as “nazi ghetto tactics” – largely failed.
The Brazilian border, less populated and boasting a much more lush forest terrain, has been more difficult to secure. There, the Washington Post estimates that 10,000 Venezuelans are crossing into Brazil on a monthly basis, most looking to buy food and medicine. The booming markets in previously sleepy Pacaraima prompted Maduro to respond in the same way he did to Cúcuta: shutting the border, claiming it a necessary measure against black market business.
Unlike in Colombia, the Brazilian government is struggling to aid the flood of Venezuelans on its border. The Washington Post reported last month that doctors working on the Venezuelan border are rapidly running out of supplies, morgues are overwhelmed with the bodies of the terminally ill looking for a last chance, and bordering Roraima state was forced to declare a state of emergency.
Brazilian officials, like their Colombian counterparts, have responded to the problem by urging Venezuela’s socialist government to change its repressive policies. “The immigration issue can only be fixed when you deal with the problem at the origin, not at the destination,” Brazilian immigration official Gustavo Marrone lamented to the Post.
Further north, in Mexico, Venezuelans are increasingly seeking work permits, or at least jobs. More Venezuelans sought work permits in Mexico in the past year than any other group, including Americans, Spaniards, Chinese, and Cubans, according to a report published in Mexican media in July. The number of migrants seeking work permits increased 20 percent between May and June 2016 alone.
Venezuelans are now among the most populous applicants seeking asylum in the United States, as well. Pew reported in August that more than 10,000 Venezuelans sought to move to the United States between October 2015 and June 2016, a 63 percent increase from the number in the same period a year before. Throughout the fiscal year 2016, the number of asylum requests from Venezuela increased 168 percent. And they are not choosing the obvious Latin American migrant destinations as homes, either; of particular note appears to be the burgeoning Venezuelan community in Utah.
Those the Utah Daily Herald spoke to who moved to Utah were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), a minority in Venezuela. Just as they chose to use their religious identity as a compass, so, too, are Venezuelan Jews increasingly flocking to Israel to remake their lives. More than double the number of Venezuelans moved to Israel in 2015 than did in 2012, according to the Washington Post. “I feel hopeful in Israel; it’s a country filled with social innovation and opportunities,” one of these migrants, Reisy Abramof, told the Post.
Venezuelan nationals moving to the United States, Pew notes, “have higher levels of education than Hispanic immigrants overall” and tend to be fluent in English more often; similar statistics are not available for migrants to Israel, though the difficulty of traveling so far and the strict Israeli immigration laws may indicate a similar pattern exists. This may belie that poor Venezuelans appear to be fleeing the country as much as the better economically situated.
Miami‘s El Nuevo Herald reported last week on a destination that appears to be taking in more of these Venezuelans: the Dominican Republic, where 170,000 Venezuelans moved to in 2016. Many of those interviewed, the report notes, were once socialists. “We are a rich nation,” lamented one Venezuelan while selling arepas, a type of corn bread, on a Dominican street. “This is an embarrassment. I never wanted to leave my country.”
Still more Venezuelans have taken to another Caribbean country: Trinidad and Tobago. The dual island nation’s officials note that the actual number of Venezuelans entering the country on tourist visas has dropped by half, while the number of Venezuelans living in the country appears to be increasing, a sign of increased illegal immigration. “The government’s concern is that this deficit [of tourist visas] is entering illegally to stay,” an expert tells El Confidencial.