Venezuela's migrant crisis could match scale of Syria's catastrophe, experts say

Venezuela’s ongoing economic and political crisis has sparked a flow of millions of refugees that could lead to a humanitarian crisis even worse than that in civil war-torn Syria, according to some experts.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of people who have fled Venezuela in recent years, some estimates put the number as high as four million – or more than 10 percent of the country’s population – with the majority of migrants heading to neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

“The economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is perhaps the worst that the hemisphere has seen in modern history,” Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in The Hill. “To keep proportions, bear in mind the estimates of refugees who left Syria during the war account for about five million individuals. Considering that the situation on the ground is deteriorating by the minute and the lack of food and medicine in Venezuela will probably get much worse, the four-million figure will only go up, and very rapidly.”

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Home to the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela was for decades an economic leader in the Western Hemisphere. And despite a massive gap between rich and poor, it was a major destination for neighboring Colombians and other Latin Americans fleeing their less prosperous and more troubled homelands.

But with the rise to power in 1999 of Hugo Chávez – whose socialist and Marxist economic reforms initially endeared him to the poor, but also created an unsustainable system of state spending – Venezuela’s economy began to creep toward crisis.

The situation has only worsened under Nicolas Maduro, the late Chávez’s successor, who took power in 2013, and by a plunge in global oil prices the following year. Venezuela's oil-dependent economy has since shrunk an estimated 35 percent — more than the U.S. economy did during the Great Depression – and government exchange and price controls have devastated the private sector.

On the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan towns and cities, citizens have for months had trouble finding everything from medical supplies to basic food items – with dire consequences. An estimated three-quarters of the population has involuntarily lost some 20 pounds of weight, according to reports. Infant mortality rates have also skyrocketed, by as much as 30 percent in 2016.

An elderly woman walks through a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela.

An elderly woman walks through a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela. (Reuters)

“It’s just a terrible situation,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told Fox News. “In the short term, the Maduro government is only going to try to consolidate its control, and the million-dollar question is where the cracks will show in the government.”

The repercussions of the Maduro government’s mismanagement are being felt not just by Venezuelans, but also by the countries on the receiving end of the refugee crisis. Colombia and Brazil have taken most of the refugees, but there are reports of thousands of Venezuelans heading to nearby Panama and the Caribbean islands and even as far off as Argentina and Chile

In neighboring Colombia, which for more than half a century struggled with its own bloody civil conflict pitting the government against leftist guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos has tried to manage the refugree crisis while he implements the terms of a 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

The Colombian government estimates the number of Venezuelan refugees jumped 62 percent in the last six months of 2017, to 550,000. And an estimated one million Venezuelans have settled in the country since 2015, with the majority of them streaming across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Cúcuta, a city of only 670,000, where a joint Red Cross-United Nations refugee camp processes the migrant flow.

Venezuelan migrants cooking at a rec center in Cúcuta, Colombia, where they have taken shelter.

Venezuelan migrants cooking at a rec center in Cúcuta, Colombia, where they have taken shelter. (Reuters)

While the Venezuelans were first met with sympathy by Colombians, there has been escalating problems amid reports of a spike in crime caused by the new arrivals. Colombia has also spent millions to shelter and feed the refugees.

“The massive influx in a relatively short period of time comes as Colombian resources are stretched thin because of the peace agreement,” Arnson said. “Venezuelan migrants are beginning to spark resentment from Colombians and that’s a shame, because there was once a great deal of sympathy for their neighbors.”

Speaking last week in Cúcuta, Santos promised to impose stricter migratory controls, suspend the daily entry cards given to Venezuelans, and send more security forces to the border.

As in Europe, the migrant situation in many Latin American countries has become a game of political football. Santos, whose term ends in May, may not be facing re-election pressures, but he’s recently been taking a tougher stand against migrants as he tries to cement his legacy after brokering the controversial peace deal with the FARC.

He warned that the government would strictly prosecute any unlawful behavior carried out by Venezuelans, and has promised to relocate tens of thousands of migrants across the country in an attempt to ease the strain on border states.

Venezuelans queueing to try to cross into Colombia from Venezuela through Simón Bolívar international bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia

Venezuelans queueing to try to cross into Colombia from Venezuela through Simón Bolívar international bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia (Reuters)

Brazilians are also becoming frustrated with the migrant situation, with some turning to violence as a means of expressing their anger.

Last week, two gasoline bombs were tossed through a window of a house where migrants were sleeping in the city of Boa Vista, Brazil. A 3-year-old girl suffered third-degree burns and her parents were injured in the attack – one of two that have occurred in the city of 300,000 in the last week.

"Everything points to xenophobia," Giuliana Castro, the public security secretary of the Brazilian state of Roraima, told Reuters by telephone. "It is unacceptable violence against innocent people."

On the international stage, there has been strong condemnation of the Venezuelan government, and calls for Maduro to step down. Peru's foreign minister said Tuesday that Maduro was no longer welcome at the meeting of hemisphere  leaders in April – a statement backed by a dozen other Latin American nations.

Even in the event of administration change in Venezuela, experts say it will be some time before the crisis ebbs.

“Venezuela is an ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis,” said Arnson, of the Woodrow Wilson center. “It will be years, if not decades, before the country even gets back to square one.”