The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

The Colombian government accepted over half a million refugees in 2017, with another half a million likely entering illegally

In the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees fled to Venezuela to escape the civil war and atmosphere of crisis embroiling the nation. Venezuela prospered as a result of a booming oil fueled economy, and it served as a destination for those Colombians fleeing their country in search of peace.

Today, that migrant flow has reversed itself. Venezuela is currently mired in economic crisis and hyperinflation, perpetuated by a highly unpredictable political situation. The government has been resolutely blistering out bolivares, the Venezuelan currency, in order to keep up with rapidly rising prices. Its value is continuing to plummet, as it bottoms out beyond worthlessness. Hyperinflation in the country is predicted to hit 13,000% in 2018. Monthly salaries of government employees hover around the equivalent of a few euros a month.

Taking a walk across the Francisco Paula Santander bridge from Cucuta, a sweltering Colombian border city that serves as the primary transit point for Venezuelan migrants entering Colombia, beyond the Venezuelan border to Urana, it’s hard to miss the freelance currency exchanges. Venezuelans sit buried beneath stacks of bolivares, where Venezuelans returning to their country can exchange a handful of pesos for an exorbitant wad of bills.

Not to mention the fact that migrants must then make quick use of the newly purchased currency, for risk that the exchange may completely have lost its value before the money could be spent.

Interestingly, the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, has recently announced plans to launch an official Venezuelan cryptocurrency, called the “petro” due to its backing in the country’s oil, gas, and diamond reserves. The move likely comes as an attempted answer to US sanctions, however such a move rings hollow and is unlikely to achieve any sustainable success. Maduro appears as awestruck  by the bitcoin narrative as many of the world’s pseudo-investors. However, the likelihood that a national cryptocurrency may effectively circumnavigate US sanctions and replace the bolivar seems exceptionally low.

Consequent to the improving Colombian economy and the momentous steps towards peace taken in the country, Colombia has taken on the gigantic responsibility of offering desperate Venezuelans refuge. In 2017 over half a million refugees were legally introduced and accepted, while it is estimated over a million have entered Colombia since 2015. It is estimated that among the Venezuelan migrants now living and operating in Colombia, the majority are doing so illegally.

Illegal migration has profound implications for Colombian security, a country that is still dealing with an incredibly powerful underground economy. As illegal refugees enter Colombia, desperation will easily drive many into the lures of possible cash that can be made in the black market. Any sort of work would suffice if it means the difference between providing any family back in Venezuela with much need financial support or letting them starve.

Human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal prostitution and all components of organized crime are galvanized by a migrant crisis but also the source of conflict within and between established organizations. Desperate migrants are willing to offer services for lower costs than the norm, thus challenging any of established organized crime’s cartel-like command over goods and services in the black market.

The Colombian president Manuel Santos has not dithered on identifying the source of the crisis, having assertively placed blame at the feet of the authoritarian Maduro. The Brazilian government has shared a similar sentiment, with Brazils minister of defense similarly condemning the Venezuelan government for the crisis.

At the moment the crisis has no resolution in sight. As it expands it is already threatening stability in Colombia and it could similarly spillover into Brazil. However with both the Colombian and Brazilian governments already in the process of developing strategies to face the crisis, as well as a number of NGOs active in offering humanitarian aid and services, the region will hopefully be able to cope with the crisis until a political solution is reached in Venezuela.