BOGOTÁ From Colombia to Ecuador and Chile, to diminutive Caribbean islands with little space to spare, Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) states have had to take on unimaginable numbers of Venezuelans since 2015.

Indeed, the region is witnessing one of the biggest, if not the biggest, migratory movement in its history. And, despite the best intentions of certain mechanisms adopted to attend to these migrants and provide for basic needs like lodging, healthcare, education and work, the size of the flux — 2.3 million, according to UN estimates — is beyond the capacities of any country.

The Venezuelan exodus is not only testing the tradition of solidarity and hospitality that has marked the LAC when contending with past cases of forced displacements, violence, and even economic migration, but also their specific commitments within the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which is more generous than the 1951 UN Convention in how it confers refugee status.


Venezuelan refugees on the streets of Colombia — Photo: Provea

Instead of open arms, we're seeing a rise in deportations and border militarization. Some countries are doing away with special residence permits and imposing impossible documentation requirements. And, in many places, there's been an uptick in xenophobic reactions in general.

While the crisis is shouting out for a multilateral response and international help, these have been lukewarm so far. The Organization of American States (OAS) is an obvious space for dealing with this, but the humanitarian crisis is so enmeshed with Venezuela's internal political context that it has been impossible to forge a consensus within the regional body.

Indeed, the region is witnessing one of the biggest, if not the biggest, migratory movement in its history.

Of all the OAS members, Colombia — given its proximity to Venezuela and the outsized portion of the refugees it is receiving — should be leading a collective response to the crisis. And yet, its new ambassador to the OAS, the very conservative former inspector-general Alejandro Ordoñez, is hardly the ideal person to take such an initiative. Keep in mind, too, that Colombia withdrew from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR in Spanish), another possible forum for debating the problem.

The international community outside the region, including the United States and European Union, is also paying little attention to the issue, especially compared to other migratory crises such as the those of Syria and the Mediterranean. Not that the response given to those crises, marked mainly by a closure of borders to migrants (with exceptions, such as Germany), is worthy of emulation.

UN bodies such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are working with LAC countries to devise comprehensive tools to attend to this mass migration. So far, however, the allocated budgets are lacking.

In the meantime, there are reasons to think that, rather than stabilizing or diminishing, the Venezuelan exodus will only grow. If that's the case, the humanitarian crisis will expand along with it, threatening regional states, in turn, with socio-economic and political destabilization.

These are all things the LAC countries and the international community need to urgently take into account. And yet, given the absence of functioning regional institutions or leadership, it seems likely instead that we'll see just more inertia, indifference, and ad-hoc measures.

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