Amid worsening crisis, Venezuelans lead in U.S. asylum claims

"There's no point," reads a sign at a pharmacy in Caracas, Venezuela. (Credit: Julio César Mesa/Flickr)

New data from the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS) showed that more than 18,000 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the U.S. last year – a 150 percent increase over 2015 and six times the level seen in 2014.

Julio Henríquez, director of the Boston-based nonprofit Refugee Freedom Program (RFP), said a large number of asylum seekers are middle-class Venezuelans who don’t qualify for refugee status.

“Victims of human rights violations and members of vulnerable groups may qualify for asylum,” Henríquez told Colombian news station NTN 24. “Vague or misleading information causes many to make decisions without understanding the consequences, such as applying for asylum without qualification or, worse, fabricating stories or evidence.”

RFP officials said they are working to educate Venezuelans on the complexities of qualifying for asylum and the harsh consequences of filing a false or frivolous claim.

Experts estimate that more than 150,000 Venezuelans fled in the last year alone, marking the biggest exodus the South American country has seen in more than a decade. The U.S. hosts the largest number of these migrants, followed by Spain and Colombia. According to the United Nations’ Population Division, more than half of the Venezuelan diaspora – 345,783 people, or nearly 2 percent of Venezuelans – are living in the U.S.

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Spain and Venezuela’s neighboring countries have also received large numbers of migrants. Earlier this month, officials in Peru announced that they will issue temporary visas to allow 6,000 Venezuelans to work, study and receive health services in the country. Last year, more than 1,800 Venezuelans crossed the border into Brazil, leading to one governor to request financial assistance to address refugees’ needs.

“It’s not like conditions once you get across the border to Brazil are anything but desperate there,” Vice President of Council of the Americas Eric Farnsworth told World Post. “People are still willing to take that chance, because it’s so bad in Venezuela.”

Just a few years ago, Venezuelans who emigrated did so in search of better opportunities for work or education. Today, they are fleeing in search of food, medical care and other basic services that have become inaccessible because of plummeting oil revenue and draconian price and currency controls. Soaring inflation has made necessities inaccessible to people in all socioeconomic classes.

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As much of the country lingers on the brink of starvation, the Associated Press reported that food trafficking has become one of the biggest businesses in Venezuela. The socialist government’s militarization of the country’s food supply has made it nearly impossible for many to buy food, driving the most desperate to hunt and eat flamingos and other exotic creatures.

Malnutrition and poor sanitation have in turn weakened immune systems among poor and middle-class Venezuelans, medical associations have said, making it easier for diseases to spread. Compounding the problem are widespread shortages of basic drugs and vaccines, emigration of underpaid doctors and crumbling medical infrastructure, particularly public hospitals.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com