Venezuelans face new barriers, xenophobia across South America
Latin American countries, once relatively open for Venezuelans, introduce new restrictions for migrants and refugees.
Lima, Peru – Yonaimer Godoy and his wife peered into his cracked phone, their eyes stained with tears.
“What are you doing over there?” Godoy’s father asked him through a video call.
It was their son’s second birthday, and they were stuck in a migrant shelter in Lima, Peru. They had left their home in Venezuela with a goal: earn enough money to help their family and eventually get them out of their collapsing country.
But Peru, the second-biggest receiver of the more than four million migrant and refugee exodus from Venezuela, had been hard on them. With temporary tourist visas, they were unable to find the work they were searching for. Instead, they were forced to sell drinks on street corners for about seven dollars a day and said they’ve faced a rising wave of xenophobia.
Weeks earlier, a new barrier went up for the family as Peru became one of a growing number of countries clamping down on Venezuelan migration, putting in place new migratory regulations that make it impossible for most Venezuelans to enter regularly.
The two parents were stuck on one side of the continent and their two-year-old son was on the other inside their collapsing country.
“I didn’t think Peru would be like this,” Godoy said, sitting in the corner of a refugee shelter with his wife. “This situation that we’re in right now, I didn’t think it would happen to me.”
Until recently, Latin American countries were known as being relatively open receivers of the growing wave of Venezuelan migrants and refugees fleeing the economic, political and humanitarian crises in their home country. Documentation has been one of the biggest struggles in the crisis because it has become virtually impossible to get basic documents like passports inside Venezuela.
As a response, countries like Peru briefly allowed migrants to apply for a temporary residency permit (PTP) that granted them permission to conditionally live and work in the country. Others, including Colombia, accepted expired Venezuelan passports.
But since a surge of migration beginning near the end of 2018, regional countries have slowly introduced legal barriers for Venezuelans.
The most recent round of those restrictions came in June when Peru’s President Marton Vizcarra introduced what he dubbed a “humanitarian visa”, requiring migrants to present not only a valid passport to enter the country, but a list of other documentation. He said the restrictions were to improve the security of Peruvian citizens.
When the visa went into effect on June 15, regular migration plummeted from its peak of 9,000 migrants entering Peru daily to 450 people a day. Few of those allowed to enter actually met the visa requirements, according to Federico Agusti, Peru representative of the UN refugee agency. Most of the 450 were exceptions to the rule like people with certified severe medical conditions and disabilities or pregnant women.
A week later, Chile implemented similar restrictions, requiring migrants to have a passport and a residency visa in an effort to cut back on Venezuelans arriving with tourist visas. Hundreds of Venezuelan families have been left stranded in precarious conditions on the Peru-Chile border for more than a month. New restrictions are also expected to take effect in Ecuador later this month.
“The reality is that many people have continued like this, with incredibly deteriorated health and desperate conditions,” Agusti said.
At the same time, Venezuelans have faced increased xenophobic attacks and attitudes. Nearly 75 percent of Peruvians say they’re opposed to Venezuelan migration, citing fears of increased crime and migrants taking their jobs, according to one poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies.
Peruvian politicians have only fed into those fears, according to Luisa Feline Freier, a researcher at Lima’s Universidad del Pacifico. When Vizcarra announced the new visa, he stood in front of a plane for deported Venezuelan migrants with previous criminal records and referred to them as “bad elements”.
“It was just a very populist act,” she said, “And that shows a little bit of what this is about.”
Rights groups fear more restrictions will be put in place, forcing Venezuelans “into the shadows”, making an already vulnerable population more vulnerable.
“If the governments require these visas, if the governments require these documents, people trying to access their territory will go through illegal means, meaning that they will be at risk of traffickers and smugglers,” said Francisco Quintana, Andes director of the Center for Justice and International Law.
When they arrive in the country, migrants without formal documentation are often taken advantage of by employers, given long hours of work for fractions of the prices they would normally get paid, if they get paid at all.
That was the case for Juan Miguel Aluarez, a 22-year-old from Barquisimeto who arrived in Peru in July after the new visa was put in place.
Faced with an unbearable financial situation, Aluarez dropped out of university in Venezuela, and fled across the continent alone to meet his brother in Peru. He wanted to find a job and send money home to his mother.
I hope that one day I can get good work, I can finish my studies, I can get my passport, I can get a visa, that I'll have all my papers fixed. But I'm scared that I'll be forced to return to Venezuela without anything.
Without any money or a passport, he spent months walking, hitch-hiking and sleeping on the streets in Colombia and Ecuador. When he arrived on the Ecuador-Peru border, he said migration officials denied him refugee status and entrance to the country.
“I didn’t want to arrive illegally, I told them,” Aluarez recalled. “I cried, I told them I came to work, that I didn’t have family in any part of this country (Ecuador). I told them I wanted to work so I could send my mom money, but no. Nothing.”
He was forced to sneak across the border between official ports of entry and climb into a car on the other side in order to reunite with his brother in his home near the border. But when he arrived, Aluarez found that his brother didn’t have the money or space to support him. Aluarez hitch-hiked his way to Lima, a place where he thought he could find work and a way to legalise his status in the country.
He found himself in a similar position to Godoy, the migrant separated from his son: without work, without papers and without rights.
“I hope that one day I can get good work, I can finish my studies, I can get my passport, I can get a visa, that I’ll have all my papers fixed,” Aluarez said. “But I’m scared that I’ll be forced to return to Venezuela without anything.”
The two migrants hope they can get some sort of legal status in the country, and that Godoy, through that, can bring his son to Peru, but their ability to do that will likely only diminish with time.
If nothing changes, the Venezuelan migration crisis is expected to reach eight million people by the end of 2020, becoming the biggest human migration the world, pushing already strained receiving countries to a breaking point as they struggle to provide basic aid. Francisco said with the expected growth, those migration restrictions are only set to grow.
Back in the shelter, Godoy said he feels stuck and that the Lima he painted in his head while in Venezuela isn’t the one he found when he arrived. He hopes for work and a better future for his family, but his face is heavy as he flicks through photos of his toddler surrounded by his dad and other family members.
“It’s not easy,” Godoy said, his eyes wet, “To know that you can’t bring them to look [at these photos] and know you can’t be with your family.”