Between 2.3 and 4 million people have fled Venezuela in the past few years. That amounts to approximately 10 percent of the Venezuelan population, a refugee crisis on par with the Syrian Civil War.
Venezuela’s economic nosedive is at the heart of this massive refugee crisis. In just the last five years, the Venezuelan economy has shrunk by 50 percent. The economic woes of Venezuela have been largely attributed to President Nicolás Maduro, who was inaugurated in 2013, and his government’s reluctance to change economic policies or respond to the refugee crisis.
Although Venezuela’s economic problems began under former President Hugo Chávez and his socialist agenda to nationalize key industries, including the highly lucrative oil industry. Maduro has only continued these policies while simultaneously cracking down on dissidents to secure power. Even while oil prices fall and the oil industry is mismanaged, Maduro resists reform to keep a firm grip on power. Even still, Maduro refutes official numbers on the crisis, citing them as fake news. He blames political adversaries and the United States for manufacturing the crisis and claims most refugees are actually political dissidents.
Conditions in Venezuela are so poor that even the wealthy are choosing to leave, often moving to Spain or the United States. Professional workers, including health care professionals, have also left the country in the mass exodus, which makes the remaining population in Venezuela susceptible to health risks and diseases. The country constantly experiences blackouts, famines, consumer goods scarcity, forced evictions, and hyperinflation.
While the crisis is massive, coverage in the United States and other Western nations have been sparse; Venezuela is viewed as an example of socialism gone awry. As a result, governments are mostly reluctant to help, and the news media neglects to cover the humanitarian crisis. As the situation continues, it becomes more of the status quo than breaking news, relegating coverage to think tanks and academia.
Though the effects of the Venezuelan refugee crisis are wide-reaching—from health issues to civil conflict—women and children refugees face particular perils, making the Venezuelan refugee crisis unique. Estimates put the number of refugees under the age 18 at over 40 percent, making age exploitation a real risk.
Although Latin America has an open door policy, many countries have begun closing their borders or restricting the number of refugees through regulations. Previously, most countries in the region maintained lax border restrictions as part of this policy, accommodating the influx of refugees. Residency permits allow refugees to work in their asylum country and provide other state-sponsored benefits, but many countries attempt to curb the inflow of refugees by limiting the number of permits granted.
But rather than limiting the number of refugees, this creates more illegal residents, which forces refugees into labor, sexual exploitation, or human trafficking. Because many are technically illegal residents, they do not report misconduct through the proper channels, which has bolstered the human trafficking industry in Latin America. According to the US State Department, criminals in 10 countries are now dealing in Venezuelan human trafficking victims.
The refugees’ illegality forces many women into the sex trade, where they often experience sexual violence and exploitation. Even women who don’t seek to join the sex trade are often kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery—a rapidly expanding industry in the Caribbean as a result of the refugee crisis.
Violence against women in the refugee crisis is only compounded by the fact that the maternal mortality rate in Venezuela increased by 65 percent from 2016 to 2017. This has been the catalyst for many pregnant women to flee Venezuela. However, their condition puts them at even greater risk of sexual exploitation, and presents a danger for the birth and future life of the child. Illegality bars expecting mothers from health care services and children from attending school.
Worst of all, very little aid currently goes to the Venezuelan refugee crisis. The UNHCR has been consistently underfunded and cannot adequately support displaced Venezuelans. International coalitions have also been lacking, leaving only individual countries providing insufficient aid. An international response by a multi-country coalition is required to deal with the massive outflow of refugees. The crisis has snowballed past a point where individual actors can adequately help the vulnerable Venezuelan population.