A political and economic crisis has reached extreme levels in Venezuela, leading to a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring countries. Inside Venezuela, people are starving and have no access to medication. Unemployment is high. The currency has been devalued and renamed; wages cannot keep up with the rate of inflation. The vast numbers of refugees fleeing the country has created a complex humanitarian crisis, both in Venezuela and in the receiving countries, particularly Columbia.
Additionally, there is a significant leadership conflict between elected President Nicolas Maduro who won reelection in May 2018 and Juan Guaidó, leader of the National Assembly, who called the election a sham and proclaimed himself president on January 23, 2019 using a constitutional provision. The United States and dozens of other governments around the world recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president. However, China, Russia and several other countries, as well as the Venezuelan military, have declared their support for Maduro.
Maduro denies that there is a humanitarian crisis in the country and blames sanctions from other countries for the problems that exist. Aid, including food and medicine, is being stockpiled in Brazil and Columbia but Maduro’s forces are not allowing it to reach Venezuelan citizens. Clashes with the military when aid deliveries are attempted are common.
In June 2019, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, declared that since 2015 more than four million Venezuelan refugees have fled the country and are now living in countries around the globe. This is an increase of more than one million people since November 2018. Of these, only 1.8 million have regular status in their current country of residence.
As of December 31, 2018, UNCHR reported that since 2014 there have been 464,229 asylum seekers around the world, over 400,000 in 2018 alone. The UN says, “Latin American countries are hosting the vast majority of Venezuelans, with Colombia accounting for some 1.3 million, followed by Peru, with 768,000, Chile 288,000, Ecuador 263,000, Brazil 168,000, and Argentina 130,000. Mexico and countries in Central America and the Caribbean are also hosting significant numbers of refugees and migrants from Venezuela.”
UNHCR says that the number of people fleeing the country puts the Venezuelan refugee crisis in line with the Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan refugee crises and they estimate that it could reach over five million in 2019. There are approximately 72,000 refugees currently seeking asylum in the U.S., with Venezuelans representing one-third of all asylum seekers. Nearly 30,000 claimants from Venezuela sought asylum in 2018 but the country has not yet implemented Temporary Protected Status which would provide safety to refugees.
The Brookings Institute has estimated that the global number could climb to eight million – more than one-quarter of the population – within two to three years if action is not taken quickly. They have calculated “that even if the government were to put all of its net income from oil—Venezuela’s main and almost only export, which is publicly owned — to feed the poorest of the poor, there would still be a substantial portion of the population whose basic caloric needs wouldn’t be covered.”
Venezuela also experiences a high level of violence – some gang-related and some connected to clashes with the military. According to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Venezuela remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries; the notable deterioration in quality of life for Venezuelan citizens over the course of 2017 contributed to a dire situation in which over 73 Venezuelans died a violent death every day.”
Despite the fact that Venezuela has the largest reserve of recoverable oil, beating out Saudi Arabia, nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans are part of an epidemic of poverty. This has increased from 2014 when the poverty rate was 48 percent and is linked to the decrease in oil prices, the major economic export, and the concurrent reduction in oil production – a 54 percent decrease since 1998.
In October 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that Venezuela is suffering a crisis of hyperinflation making it one of the worst in history. At the same time, the cost for consumer goods have risen steeply but incomes have not kept up with the rate of inflation. The inflation rate rose to 1.7 million percent earlier this year before dropping to 815,000 percent in May. On June 13, 2019 Venezuela introduced three new bank notes – 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 bolivars – to combat the hyperinflation. The 50,000 bolivars note is worth $8.13 in U.S. dollars, minimum wage is about 40,000 bolivars monthly and a cup of coffee costs about one million bolivars. Many Venezuelans have been using debit cards to avoid carrying a large number of bank notes. Others have started using banknotes to make fans and purses with the hope of being able to raise money.
Consumer prices are expected to increase by 1,370,000 percent. ACAPS reports that, “In January 2019, a basic food basket containing 60 items cost about 360,115 Venezuelan Bolivars (VES). Between January 2018 and January 2019, the price of a basic food basket increased by 283,880%. In order to purchase a food basket, a household would have to earn 20 times the minimum monthly salary (VES 18,000). In 2017, food prices in Venezuela increased by 2,616%.”
According to ACAPS, “Inside Venezuela, hyperinflation and increased prices have reduced access to food, medicines, and other basic goods, while the general availability of goods is hampered by import restrictions. In recent years, malnutrition has reached emergency thresholds for children under 5, with 50% exhibiting some degree of malnutrition, and some 280,000 at risk of death due to undernourishment. Pregnant women and people in impoverished parts of the country are also more vulnerable to malnutrition.”
Venezuela is also facing a critical health crisis including a shortage of medicine. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimated in April 2018 that there was a shortage of more than 85 percent of medications and hospitals also report missing about 50 percent of necessary medical supplies. The majority of hospitals – 70 percent – have reported power outages and a lack of available drinking water; 25 percent had no water at all in 2018. There is a severe lack of medical staff with 55 percent resigning or leaving the country. For those that do remain, salaries are extremely low. As a result, maternal and infant mortality rates are high and increasing. Previously eradicated diseases such as malaria are resurging. There have been significant increases in deaths related to those requiring kidney dialysis and people diagnosed with HIV, dengue fever, measles and diphtheria. There also has been a significant reduction of people in psychiatric institutions – from 23,000 to 3,500 – and yet the current crisis is certain to exacerbate mental health issues.
In December 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that humanitarian organizations would need at least $738 million a year to respond to the needs of refugees who have fled the country. There are two specific focuses for funders to consider:
- How to support people still living in Venezuela.
- How to support communities hosting refugees.
These will overlap, as many of the needs that caused people to leave the country still exist or are exacerbated when they migrate to another country, including:
- Nutritional support – Malnutrition is common. Government food programs do not meet the needs. In 2018, it was reported that most Venezuelans had lost nearly 25 pounds in the previous year. Venezuelans need nutritional aid and support within the country. Venezuelans in host countries need food, nutrition and WASH assistance.
- Shelter – Receiving countries need support providing shelter assistance to Venezuelans living in refugee camps or housing support for those who have legal status in the receiving community but low funds.
- Medical support – The lack of doctors and medical supplies means chronic illnesses may have gone untreated, while illnesses previously eliminated such as measles have reemerged. Both public and mental health supports are required.
In receiving countries, longer-term supports for employment, health care and housing are required. Due to the high percentage of Venezuelans in an “irregular situation” (lack of legal status in the host country) they may not be able to access needed services, making them more vulnerable. Supports with legal help for documentation, payment of application fees, etc. are necessary.
InterAction’s NGO Aid Map can help funders find organizations working in Venezuela or neighboring countries.
CDP has a Global Recovery Fund that provides an opportunity for donors to meet the ongoing and ever-expanding challenges presented by global crises.
If you are a responding NGO or a donor, please send updates on how you are working in this crisis to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a donor looking for recommendations on how to help in this crisis, please email email@example.com.
- CDP Blog: The Human Costs in Venezuela
- CDP Issue Insight: Nutrition
- CDP Issue Insight: WASH
- CDP Issue Insight: Public Health
- CDP Issue Insight: Mental Health
- Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela
- A Political and Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela – WAMU 88.5
- Top 10 Facts About Poverty in Venezuela – Borgen Project
- Restoring Venezuela’s Democracy and Halting the Humanitarian Disaster – Center for Strategic and International Studies
- A Venezuelan Refugee Crisis – Council on Foreign Relations