Venezuela’s Forgotten Refugee Crisis Rivals Ukraine’s

International funding for refugees falls short despite a new spike in Venezuelans fleeing their country.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A migrant family from Venezuela illegally crosses the Rio Grande river.
A migrant family from Venezuela illegally crosses the Rio Grande river.
A migrant family from Venezuela illegally crosses the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas, at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations appealed to member states late last year to provide $1.79 billion to support Venezuelan refugees across Latin America, but as of this week, it has only received around $226 million—or 13 percent—of the funds it says it needs to tackle the crisis, according to U.N. data.

More than 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country since it fell into a protracted political crisis and economic freefall eight years ago, and humanitarian organizations warn that number is expected to rise further in the coming months.

The gap in funding stands in sharp contrast to the refugee crisis in Europe, where the United States and its European allies have pledged tens of billions of dollars to support the comparable number of Ukrainian refugees—around 7 million people—who have fled elsewhere in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

The United Nations appealed to member states late last year to provide $1.79 billion to support Venezuelan refugees across Latin America, but as of this week, it has only received around $226 million—or 13 percent—of the funds it says it needs to tackle the crisis, according to U.N. data.

More than 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country since it fell into a protracted political crisis and economic freefall eight years ago, and humanitarian organizations warn that number is expected to rise further in the coming months.

The gap in funding stands in sharp contrast to the refugee crisis in Europe, where the United States and its European allies have pledged tens of billions of dollars to support the comparable number of Ukrainian refugees—around 7 million people—who have fled elsewhere in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

“It’s sad to see we have two crises with roughly the same number of refugees impacted, and the response for Ukraine has been so overwhelmingly positive … while in Venezuela, there’s real donor fatigue,” said Rachel Schmidtke, an expert on Latin America who works for the Refugees International advocacy group. “Although people aren’t fleeing war [in Venezuela], they are fleeing a dictatorship and a country that was in economic freefall for many years.”

Human rights watchdogs have accused Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government of sweeping political repression and human rights violations, including jailing political opponents, torturing detainees, harassing pro-democracy activists and journalists, and violently cracking down on protesters. “The exodus of Venezuelans fleeing repression and the humanitarian emergency represents the largest migration crisis in recent Latin American history,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its latest annual report on Venezuela.

Refugee flows from Venezuela somewhat abated in 2021 after Maduro’s government took some steps to try and reverse the country’s economic collapse, including halting onerous foreign currency controls. But ongoing political repression by Maduro, coupled with new economic woes from the coronavirus pandemic and global economic slowdown, have led to a new surge in Venezuelans fleeing their country this year. An estimated 1,700 Venezuelans per day are now fleeing their country despite Maduro’s claim that the economy is growing—totaling at least 753,000 new refugees since last November, according to new data from Latin American countries receiving them. Neighboring Colombia has taken in an estimated 2.5 million Venezuelan refugees, for example, while another 1.2 million refugees have fled to Peru.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis has also put a strain on the already overstretched U.S. immigration system, as more Venezuelan refugees seek to make the lengthy and dangerous journey to the United States via migration routes across Central America and Mexico. (The Panamanian government said it has seen some 45,000 Venezuelans enter its territory this year alone, compared to some 3,000 refugees last year.)

The number of encounters between Venezuelan nationals and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency officials on the U.S. southern border has shot up from 2,787 in 2020 to 128,556 in 2022 to date, with 17,651 taking place in July alone. Republican lawmakers have criticized the Biden administration’s migration and border security policies as the number of overall migrants and asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border grows.

The United States is the top international donor for the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. It has provided more than $1.9 billion in humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans since fiscal year 2017 and $281 million in fiscal year 2022 to date to the Venezuelan regional crisis response, according to a State Department spokesperson. “We urge other donors to help support the now more than 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their country,” the spokesperson said.

The Biden administration in July extended “temporary protected status” (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in the United States through March 2024. The extension protects around 343,000 Venezuelans from being deported for another 18 months, but it leaves an additional 150,000 Venezuelans who entered the country after U.S. President Joe Biden first granted the TPS designation in limbo.

Schmidtke said Washington was doing its part to help fund Venezuelan refugee support, but it needed to do more to protect those coming to the United States. “In a nutshell, the U.S. is doing quite a lot on the donor side, but the U.S. also needs to increase its commitments to refugees that have made their way here.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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