Fleeing Maduro —Fending off the flood from Venezuela

EconomistFeb 15th 2018

The rise in migration has alarmed Latin American governments

EVERY morning crowds gather on the Venezuelan side of the Simón Bolívar bridge to cross over into Colombia. Many just want to shop for basic goods, which are scarce at home. But growing numbers are staying, at least until the political and economic crisis in their country passes. Colombian immigration officials counted 550,000 Venezuelans in the country at the end of last year. That is an increase of 210,000 from the middle of the year.

On February 8th Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, on a visit to the border town of Cúcuta, tried to stanch the flow. In a warehouse used by the disaster-relief arm of the government of Norte de Santander, Cúcuta’s province, he announced that Colombia would stop issuing one-day entry cards for Venezuelans and deploy 3,000 more guards along the countries’ 2,200km (1,400-mile) border. “Colombia has never before experienced a situation like this,” he said. On February 14th he said the country needs international help to cope with it.

Mr Santos is not the only Latin American leader to be unnerved by the influx of Venezuelans. Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, went on February 12th to Boa Vista, an Amazonian town of 330,000 people that is hosting 40,000 Venezuelans. Fewer have entered Brazil than Colombia in part because the border region is a jungle. Brazil plans to double the number of border guards and help Venezuelans resettle to other cities in the country’s interior. The point is not to stop migrants from coming but to “discipline and co-ordinate” their arrival, Mr Temer said.

More than 200,000 Venezuelans entered Ecuador from January 2016 to September 2017, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Three-quarters of them went on to Peru and to Chile, where requests for residency permits from Venezuelans last year were on track to double those in 2016. Some 27,000 pitched up in Argentina in 2017 and perhaps 40,000 are in Trinidad and Tobago. Some 2.7m of Venezuela’s 34m people are abroad.

Colombia, the most accessible neighbour, has borne the brunt. As the numbers have risen, its easy-going attitude has toughened. Unemployment and crime are rising in Cúcuta and other border towns, say local officials. People who had good jobs in Venezuela now beg and sleep on Cúcuta’s streets with their families.

Colombia is trying to balance border control with compassion for people fleeing a country where inflation is expected to reach 13,000% this year and the economy will shrink by 15%. Mr Santos reminded Colombians that Venezuela received 1m of their countrymen during Colombia’s decades of armed conflict, which subsided in the early 2000s. Colombia’s foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín, says her government has been learning tips from Turkey, a destination for Syrians fleeing war, on how to deal with migrants from Venezuela. It has been working with the UN to set up reception centres for them.

To Venezuelans in Cúcuta, the new policy feels more like a crackdown. Those in the country are being required to register with immigration offices. They will be able to work, but only if they have stamped passports. A shortage of paper for passports is one of many that are causing Venezuelans to flee.

A new task force will keep Cúcuta’s growing homeless population out of squares and parks. Last month, immigration officials raided a basketball court that 900 migrants had turned into a shelter. Hundreds were deported.

But such measures will not stop the flow of Venezuelans and may not slow it much. The long border is easily crossed. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has called a presidential election for April 22nd. He is unlikely to face an effective rival. As long as he is in charge, the Venezuelans will keep coming.