For years there have been stories from Venezuela about food shortages, import cuts and dwindling international reserves. The Venezuelan economy has crumbled before our eyes. President Nicolas Maduro’s downfall has been a question of when, not if. We’re still waiting for the collapse, but Venezuela has finally reached a tipping point.

Initially, when the formal market failed, an informal market appeared to fill the void. Where bartering and the black market couldn’t meet basic needs, people would cross into other countries like Colombia to buy what they needed before crossing back. As goods became scarcer and income fell, people stopped coming back. Many opted to go to Colombia, while those with the will and the means frequently opted for faraway places like the United States or southern Europe.

In the past year, the informal market has apparently started to fail too. A June 2018 survey by Venezuela’s Consultores 21 found that Venezuelans of every social standing and political persuasion want to leave the country. It found that 54 percent of the upper-middle class and 43 percent from the lower class want to emigrate, as well as 66 percent of Chavistas, 63 percent of supporters of the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition and 58 percent of other opposition supporters. Even 17 percent of Maduristas, the president’s loyalists, expressed a desire to leave. Leaving is no longer just for the opposition or the wealthy.

Venezuelans’ hope for their country’s future is fading too. A strong opposition majority elected to the National Assembly in December 2015, combined with massive protests and rallies throughout 2016, failed to affect real change. Protests still occur, but not of the same magnitude as before. Since 2015, approximately 2.3 million people (7 percent of the population) have emigrated, according to an International Organization for Migration report, and most of those left in the past year. What matters now isn’t what this means for Venezuela – the answer to that question has been obvious for some time – but what it means for the South American countries now trying to cope with Venezuela’s migration crisis.

This Deep Dive will identify the countries experiencing the greatest disruption and explain how their governments are responding. It will then examine the broader problems affecting all affected countries – health risks, the job market, the costs of government responses and the political repercussions of mass migration. Finally, it’ll provide an overview of the challenges ahead. Ultimately, we aren’t optimistic about the abilities of these governments to coordinate a response, and though some will fare better on their own than others, every country for itself isn’t a recipe for a stable region in the future.

Regional Impact

International Organization for Migration data shows that of the 697,500 Venezuelans who left the country in 2015, 73 percent went to the U.S., Canada or southern Europe (Spain, Italy or Portugal). These were the ideal destinations for people who could afford to get there. But in the past two years, as the situation has reached a breaking point and the profile of those wanting to get out has broadened, the acceptable destinations have gotten much closer – putting South America at the center of the migration crisis.

Of the 1.64 million Venezuelans who left the country in 2017, 53 percent stayed in South America. The advantages of South American countries are their proximity, the relatively low cost of travel, their common language (save Brazil), their lower cost of living compared to the U.S. or Europe, and the fact that they have large informal economies, enabling immigrants to jump immediately into work.

But the South American countries suddenly facing an influx of Venezuelan migrants were overwhelmed. Over the past few years, the regional rhetoric against the Maduro regime has increased, but little concrete action was taken. Critics feared making things worse inside the country and the dangerous precedent that would come with supporting the removal of another leader in the region. But the flood of Venezuelans into other South American countries is putting a large political and economic strain on those countries that cannot be ignored.

At the start of Venezuela’s economic downturn, neighboring Colombia was a place for struggling Venezuelans to go to buy goods that were scarce at home. People would cross the border for the day or the weekend into towns like Cucuta and then return home. As the situation worsened, they stopped returning home.

Colombia is now the largest destination for Venezuelan migrants and is a transit country along the way to South America’s west coast. The government has started sounding the alarm bells. The problem is the sheer volume of immigrants. Colombia’s director of migration reported that at the end of 2017, the country had more than 550,000 Venezuelans. Just six months later, he said the figure had risen to 870,093, accounting for 1.7 percent of Colombia’s population.

(click to enlarge)

By 2016, the Colombian government was already taking administrative measures such as a wildly unsuccessful border mobility card system to track the movement of Venezuelans. By 2017, Bogota had installed new border control checkpoints and introduced a Special Permit of Permanence, or PEP system, to help normalize the legal status of Venezuelans entering the country. Once they have legal status, Venezuelan migrants can work and access social services. In July, about 381,700 had some type of legal status. Just before leaving office in August, President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree to normalize an additional 442,000 Venezuelans and bring them into the PEP system. Though Colombia is coping, the foreign minister made it clear that his country can’t take the lead on a migration crisis and that Colombia would seek help from the international community.

Brazil is a melting pot of immigrants, but even it was unprepared for the recent flood of Venezuelans. What started as a trickle into the state of Roraima around 2015 became a deluge in 2017. That year, the number of Venezuelans entering Roraima increased sevenfold to 35,000. From Jan. 1 to June 22, 2018, the Brazilian Federal Police received 16,953 applications for refugee status. Of those, 16,523 – more than 97 percent – were from Venezuelans. This is more than 20 percent higher than the total number of requests from Venezuelans for all of 2017 (13,583). Brazil’s Federal Police estimate that there are now at least 50,000 Venezuelans in Brazil. Half of them are in Roraima’s capital, Boa Vista, where they represent 7.5 percent of the city’s 332,000 inhabitants.

(click to enlarge)

In need of a government response, Brazil’s National Council of Immigration issued a resolution in March 2017 that permitted Venezuelans to apply for two-year temporary residency and eliminated migratory fees for people in need. In February 2018, President Michel Temer declared Roraima to be in a state of vulnerability because of immigration and increased the number of border guards to 170. In April, the government implemented its acclimation and relocation program, which provides legal status for Venezuelans in the country as well as medical exams, vaccinations, access to public health care, schooling for children, language courses and job training. In August, the government started trying to limit the entrance of Venezuelans through visa checks and additional military deployments to the border.

Peru, which boasts one of the most stable economies in South America, is an increasingly popular destination among Venezuelans. Many enter in the northwest through Ecuador and stay, while others continue on to Chile. In 2015, there were only 433 requests for refugee status in Peru. In 2016 and 2017, the government received a total of around 34,000 requests. And 2018 is on pace to rocket past those figures – to date, there are an average of 14,000 applications per month. In July 2018, the country’s National Superintendence of Migration reported that there were 368,000 Venezuelans in Peru and that as many as 46,000 had entered the country in 2018 alone. The foreign minister said at the end of August that there were now over 400,000 Venezuelans in the country.

The Peruvian government has had to move quickly to catch up with the influx of immigrants. In August 2017, the National Superintendence of Migration announced that it would activate a hotline to organize the issuance of temporary permits of permanence (a program started in January) to Venezuelans who had entered the country. The measure allowed Venezuelans to normalize their legal status, work legally, access social services, get a tax ID number and integrate into the tax system. This proved inadequate, and over the past year officials set up extra facial and fingerprint recognition systems along the border, revamped websites related to immigration services, and set up screening and processing modules throughout Lima, with plans to add 10 more throughout the country. Finally, on Aug. 25, the government said a passport would be required for entry in the hope that it will help stem the flow of immigrants.

Located between Peru and Colombia, Ecuador has mostly been used as a transit country. Since 2016, however, there has been a marked increase in Venezuelans living in the country’s central provinces. The National Secretariat of Communication reported that from January through August this year, 641,353 Venezuelans entered Ecuador. Of those, 525,663 left for other South American destinations. In other words, 115,690 – just under 20 percent – remain in Ecuador.

(click to enlarge)

Ecuador’s government was not prepared for more Venezuelans to stay in the country. Ecuadorian law provides temporary residence for those who can prove economic solvency and come from a member of the Union of South American Nations, meaning that Venezuelans with the means can automatically stay for two years. The government has now started taking steps to control the flow of Venezuelans. It has organized bus trips to bring Venezuelans from their point of entry down south to Peru. The government also tried changing the law so that Venezuelans would need to show passports to enter – currently, they need only to show national IDs – but that was overruled by a court. Ecuador has not ruled out instituting some type of quota system.

Common Challenges

The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of desperate people poses unique challenges for each South American country, but some challenges are shared. The health risks that accompany mass migration rank as the most immediate concern among these governments. Basic sanitation is a serious issue. Many of the cities around entry points to these countries were not built to handle an influx of tens of thousands of people. The Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments declared localized states of emergency in areas of high migration to facilitate the allocation and delivery of government resources to these areas. Brazil has been sending extra doctors to Roraima since 2017. A secondary concern is the potential for disease to spread. Earlier this year, there was a measles outbreak in Venezuela. The Pan American Health Organization’s July update for measles said there are now 2,472 confirmed cases, up 45 percent from June, in 11 American countries. Venezuela accounts for 1,613 of the cases, and Brazil ranks second with 677. These two countries also accounted for over 92 percent of the new cases reported. Governments risk backlash from local populations if they are seen as being unresponsive to major health risks in the general populace.

There are also potential economic consequences. The biggest concern is labor. Informal labor markets are large in these countries: They serve as major revenue sources for the local population, but they also account for 70 percent of the work that Venezuelans find upon arrival in a new country, according to the International Organization for Migration. Job competition in the informal market is a concern, as is the suppression of wages in formal employment sectors. Many Venezuelan emigrants have university degrees or technical training. Though these concerns exist throughout the region, they are especially pronounced in Peru.

Another economic concern for governments is the cost of supporting mass immigration. Even basic operations such as providing security, administrative processing and sanitation measures at border crossings are expensive. Relocation programs, job training and health care for tens of thousands of people is even more so. Brazil still has not fully recovered from its 2015-16 recession, and the government has been struggling for the past two years to reduce spending. Ecuador is in the midst of recovering from low oil prices and transitioning the economy from high levels of government intervention to more open market conditions. And with so few resources to go around, governments must answer tough questions from voters about why so much is being spent on Venezuelans when the native poor populations have so much need for financial sustenance.

(click to enlarge)

Finally, there are the domestic political questions, which will vary for each country. Immigration is by nature a divisive issue. In the case of Venezuelan immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment and political instability will start in border locations with high concentrations of immigrants. Venezuelan immigration has had a huge impact on Brazilian politics, made stronger by the fact that there are elections in October. Tensions were already high between Roraima and the federal government. The state believes the federal government has not provided enough assistance. It also resents the fact that the courts denied its request to close the border with Venezuela. And the immigration debate ties into the national debate about the role of the military in society.

Courses of Action 

For the affected countries, the solution involves managing the migration flow rather than trying to bring about regime change in Venezuela. In the short term, regime change would have the opposite of the desired effect. It’s a messy affair when governments fall – transition periods are chaotic, and there is always the rebuilding phase. Regime change would motivate people to leave and wait for stability to be restored before returning home. Moreover, are reluctant to use force to depose a leader out of fear that it would set a precedent that could one day turn against them. And the affected countries lack the spare resources and public support for such action anyway. For now, at least, governments will pursue solutions on the domestic level first.

Before taking any decisive measures, one major challenge must be overcome: figuring out the size and scope of the migration issue. Massive amounts of data need to be processed to track who enters and exits – often at different locations. In the case of irregular migration, it may take several months to estimate those figures. Many of the national institutions charged with this task were not designed to deal with issues of this magnitude. Peru’s immigration services are still processing temporary permits of permanence from 2017. Colombia and Peru exchanged basic data on registered Venezuelans, only to discover that some individuals were registered in both countries and reaping the benefits from both. All four countries have resorted to executive decrees to expedite the status of migrants, deploy security forces and/or free up other resources related to humanitarian aid.

Affected countries met on Tuesday to exchange ideas and assess the problem. They called for countries to find means to continue accepting Venezuelans, but joint statements won’t solve the problem. Each country has very different capacities to absorb new populations. Brazil is a huge country capable of accepting large numbers of people and with a long track record of integrating foreigners. This is not the case for Ecuador, which is about 30 times smaller than Brazil and has one-eighth the population. And the lack of any existing regional framework severely limits the ability to take a regional approach toward addressing Venezuelan migration. The urgency of the situation does not allow for time to be spent crafting such a framework.

Most important, each country will put its national interests ahead of regional cooperation. No country in the region can single-handedly absorb all the Venezuelan emigrants, nor is there a country that can foot the bill for supporting programs in neighboring countries. Cooperation will occur where it suits national interests, provided it doesn’t bind countries to specific courses of action. Where it will be easy for the region to find common ground is in the call for international support – ideally from a multilateral group like the United Nations – and aid to help mitigate the effects of the migration wave.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.