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Managing the Hemisphere’s Worst Refugee Crisis


With all the talk about the migration crisis at the US-Mexico border it is easy to forget that just to the south in Venezuela, the region is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the massive 2015 exodus of Syrians from that conflict.

Unlike Syria, there is no war going on in Venezuela. Instead, an authoritarian regime has allowed the richest country in South America to tumble into a humanitarian nightmare. This month the United Nations and the International Organization of Migration estimated that more than 4 million people, ten percent of the total population, had fled from that country over the last four years.

So why are those fleeing from the oppression, hunger, and crime not considered refugees? That is a question to consider as we commemorate World Refugee Day. With more than 68 million people on the move around the world, and with projections of this number growing, it is time to consider what it means to be a refugee in the 21st century.

The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees sets out the modern definition for who is a refugee, someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” That was sixty-eight years ago.

Refugees in the twenty-first century are outside their country with little hope of returning to their homes as the nature of warfare has changed. Not only do governments create intolerable conditions that arouse fear of persecution or violence, but non-state actors like ISIS and Al-Qaeda threaten millions of civilians who are often caught up in conflicts that have no end in sight. And the Convention on Refugees does not even address the situation of the millions who are internally displaced in their countries. Returning home in these situations is not an option in today’s geopolitical climate. In 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit hosted by the United Nations addressed the need to coordinate humanitarian assistance and focus on ways to reduce suffering in the new types of crises arising from modern wars. In spite of the changing evidence about people fleeing their countries, diplomats and leaders in the humanitarian community did not want to reopen the 1951 refugee convention to embrace the current reality. It was considered too risky to revise the outdated definition of who is a refugee given the backlash in the developed world that has grown weary of taking in those in need of assistance.

Refugees in the twenty-first century are outside their country with little hope of returning to their homes as the nature of warfare has changed.

But we need solutions that overcome the ugly rhetoric so that we can help those who are in harm’s way.

In 1984, ten Latin American countries signed the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which defines refugees as “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

The current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is now testing the inter-American system as the ongoing brutality of an authoritarian like Nicolas Maduro sets the conditions for people to flee their homeland. Between 2014 and 2018, some 414,570 asylum claims have been lodged globally by Venezuelans, over 255,448 in 2018 alone. While refugee procedures are overwhelmed, only 7,171 were recognized as refugees thus far. This, despite the existence of a well-founded fear of persecution, the result of actions like using live ammunition on demonstrators, or weaponizing food and health care.

Even with the broader definition of refugee that the Cartagena Declaration espoused, most Venezuelans are not considered refugees by receiving countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile, and thus are condemned to a legal purgatory that is dependent on the largesse of receiving states to provide for these beleaguered men, women and children.

Except for Colombia, most of the other receiving states in Latin America are making it hard for those coming from Venezuela to reintegrate even though they share the same language, a shared cultural heritage, and a hope for a new beginning. Countries like Peru, Chile, Ecuador are still putting up barriers by rigid documentation requirements that are impossible to meet when someone leaves home with just the clothes on their back. Yet the possibility for Venezuelans being able to return home any time soon is unlikely given the deterioration of infrastructure and the near destruction of the oil industry, the main source of export earnings for the Maduro government.

Unfortunately, today we are seeing walls and fences as the response to guarding borders. This has certainly been the response since the terrorist attacks of September 2011. A recent article in the “Washington Lawyer” noted that in the last decade, with the global refugee crisis growing more acute, especially in Europe, the response has been to create physical barriers that prevent migration, and hopefully stop terrorists. Sadly, these initiatives have neither stopped the flow of migrants, nor have they reduced the opportunities for terrorists to commit heinous crimes.

South America has been a zone of peace in a turbulent world. That is why it is time to consider opening the borders between states to enable stability, and more importantly to manage a crisis in Venezuela that has little hope for a quick resolution.

Every country has the right and the obligation to protect its borders. But a more creative way to think about managing refugees is to think of borders not as barriers but as regional public goods. In the 21st century, borders have become enablers of a wide range of regional public goods (RPGs). In an age of globalization, where both opportunities and threats to peace and security respect no boundaries, it is important to reconsider the role of borders as more than just a demarcation of territory. Today, borders are less a cause of conflict than a means to build peace. Borders create opportunities to harmonize the rule of law across boundaries, to ensure access to trade, and to jointly address threats arising from climate change.

History has proven that those states that view their borders as regional public goods that can enable better economic relations, trade, and integration are more likely to be successful in their ability to solve common problems. This was the rationale behind the Schengen agreement that led to the development of the European Community. This is what is needed in the Americas. The safe passage of refugees across the borders could in the long run benefit host countries. Taking another look at borders as an enabler of security and refugee support can be a first step toward a more humane approach to managing a crisis that will not end any time soon.

Johanna Mendelson Forman

Editorial Board Member

With more than two decades of experience in the international arena, working on post-conflict transition and democratization issues, Johanna Mendelson Forman holds a wealth of expertise and insights into the role of food in driving conflict and connecting people and communities. An Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service where she teaches "Conflict Cuisine®: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table," Mendelson Forman encourages new ways of looking at diplomacy, conflict resolution, and civic engagement. She is also a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center where she directs the Food Security program.


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