Rich or poor, Venezuelans flee country in growing numbers

Venezuelan protesters filled dozens of city blocks in what was dubbed the "taking of Caracas" on Sept. 1, 2016, to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro. (Credit: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

As Venezuela’s economic crisis worsens, people of every economic class are fleeing life-threatening conditions in the South American country to seek refuge in countries across the Americas.

The first waves of refugees to flee Venezuela were the country’s professionals and those with the financial means to do so, but now, even the poor and middle-income classes have joined the throngs. Experts estimate that more than 150,000 Venezuelans have fled in the last year alone, marking the biggest exodus the South American country has seen in more than a decade.

Venezuela was once a thriving country with oil wealth that attracted immigrants from all over the world. Today living conditions resemble a war zone. There are widespread shortages of basic household goods, and more than 35,000 Venezuelans crossed into Colombia this summer to buy things like flour, soap and toilet paper. The International Monetary Fund expects inflation to hit 480 percent this year, and surpass 1,640 next year.

“The situation has reached the point where even if you have money, you can’t find what you need,” Maricarmen Silva, a 25-year-old accountant from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, told Humanosphere.

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Silva left Venezuela more than a year ago to find work with another firm in Ecuador. From her group of friends back home, she said, two have migrated to Argentina, one has gone to Spain, while others have left for the U.S. or Canada. In the process, she added, they have had to make painful sacrifices to distance themselves from friends, family and lovers.

“To migrate is to die and be reborn in another reality,” she said.

Other Venezuelans who emigrate are still less fortunate. The New York Times reported that Venezuelan families are now sleeping on the streets of foreign cities, unable to find work. And for those who do secure jobs, it is normally nothing like they had before the crisis.

“I don’t mind cleaning now,” a former Venezuelan nurse in Curaçao, a tiny island country off the coast of Venezuela, told the New York Times. “The important thing is that I’m working here.”

Curaçao is one of several neighboring countries to see a spike in Venezuelan refugees as the crisis worsens. Venezuelans have reportedly been trying to reach the tiny islands of Curaçao and Aruba in makeshift rafts, while Brazil and Guyana have stepped up deportations in response to Venezuelans crossing the border seeking food and medicine.

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Other Venezuelans have sought refuge much farther from home. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. asylum applications filed by Venezuelans this year have soared 168 percent compared to 2015, making Venezuelans the second-largest group of asylum-seekers in the country. Pew also finds that Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. have higher levels of education than Hispanic immigrants overall; 53 percent of Venezuelan immigrants ages 25 and older have a college degree, compared with 29 percent of Hispanic immigrants.

Venezuela’s crisis has no clear end in sight as Vatican-backed talks between Maduro’s administration and the opposition falter, and many arrested opposition members have not yet been freed. But as Business Insider noted, the refugee crisis is now prompting the U.S. and Venezuela’s neighbors to more actively search for a resolution of the country’s deep political and economic problems, despite Maduro’s ongoing reluctance to negotiate with international actors.

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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