Bottom Line Up Front
- At the end of 2019, more than 16% of Venezuela’s population have fled the country, an astonishing 4.7 million people.
- Venezuelans are fleeing at a more rapid rate than Syrians were escaping the civil war at the peak of that conflict, and an estimated 6.5 million Venezuelans are expected to be living outside of the country by the end of 2020.
- Maduro has managed to cling to power by relying heavily on external powers like Russia to prop up his regime.
- Aside from vague demands for political change, the international community has failed to provide much needed financial support for the refugees.
As the headlines have shifted to other issues, Venezuela begins 2020 facing a massive humanitarian crisis with region-wide consequences. By the end of 2019, more than 4.7 million Venezuelans had fled the country, nearly 16% of the total population, equivalent to roughly the entire population of Panama or Ireland. This is a mass exodus on the scale of the Syrian civil war—but the drivers of migration in Venezuela are hunger, poverty, political corruption, and widespread crime. That Venezuela’s suffering is a result of corruption and economic incompetence (the economy has contracted by nearly 65% since 2013), not international conflict or insurgency, means that the country and the unfolding crisis draw less media attention than Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. This does not mean the Venezuelan refugee crisis is any less concerning or deserving of international attention and support. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that if the current rate of exodus continues unabated, and few close observers see any signs of improvement, the number of Venezuelans who have fled the country could reach as many as 6.5 million by the end of 2020. Venezuelans are now fleeing their country at a more rapid rate than Syrians were escaping the civil war at the peak of that conflict’s worst violence. The overall population for Venezuela is an estimated 31 million, a number that will continue to decline.
There are more relevant parallels to Syria, including the impact on countries bordering Venezuela as well as throughout the broader region. In Latin America, Venezuela’s neighbors have provided refuge, aid, and support for millions of Venezuelans, all while receiving significantly less than adequate support from the international community. The UNHCR Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform has provided data detailing the extent of the situation. Colombia has received 1.6 million refugees; Peru, 863,613; Ecuador, 385,042; Brazil, 224,102; and Panama, 94,596. An estimated 351,000 have fled or traveled to the United States. Data and statistics concerning refugees and migrants can be notoriously unreliable, with strict definitions—such as ‘recognized refugees’ and asylum claims that apply to groups, not individuals—making an accurate count more difficult. That said, most estimates suggest between 4,000 and 5,000 refugees are fleeing the country each day.
The United States has publicly and repeatedly called for the overthrow of the dubiously elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, and backed his main political opponent, Juan Guaido. While there were moments of intense drama in 2019 in which Washington openly called for the Venezuelan military to turn on Maduro, accompanied by protests and limited defections, the situation has now reached a stalemate with the civilian population caught in the middle. Maduro has managed to cling to power and has relied heavily on external powers like Russia to prop up his regime. But few believe that Moscow has the best interests of Caracas in mind. Rather, the Kremlin sees Venezuela as one of its few allies in the Western Hemisphere and a country where Russia can establish a more robust military presence while also having a market to sell its weapons to and maintain influence over energy policy.
What is less difficult to gauge is that this humanitarian crisis is clearly getting worse. There also seems to be a growing disconnect between the need for assistance and the sense of urgency for the international community to act. There are few signs of meaningful progress to break the logjam of political fighting that has paralyzed the country at a time when the rule of law and sound governance is most desperately needed. Aside from vague demands for political change, the international community has failed to provide much needed financial support for the refugees. The Brookings Institution has labeled the refugee crisis in Venezuela ‘the largest and most underfunded in modern history.’ Comparing the total amount of dollars spent to deal with the crises in Syria and Venezuela, respectively, over the first four years of the conflicts, the international community donated (on a per capita basis) $1,500 per Syrian with a paltry $125 per Venezuelan.