The plight of Venezuelan migrants exposes a gap in the global protection system
State Department photo by Ron Przysucha (public domain).
The global protection system built in response to the mass displacement of people following World War II does not encompass the varied forms of protection needed in response to current forced migration. The system is based around the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 Protocol, which universalised the coverage of the convention beyond those escaping World War II. It enshrined certain rights for refugees such as the right not to be returned to a country where the refugee person would be in danger, commonly known as non-refoulement. This protection has been central to defending refugees and would-be refugees from being returned to life-threatening circumstances on the basis of their migration status. At present, however, there are groups of forced migrants who need the option to leave their country of origin for the long term without forsaking the right to return.
A population that exemplifies this latent need are the millions of Venezuelan migrants who have left their country in the past six years. Venezuelan migrants and refugees have been obliged to leave due to the political and economic crisis occurring in Venezuela. The majority of these refugees and migrants now reside in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, where they have received a variety of protection statuses ranging from refugee status, to new exceptional, temporary statuses, to stay permits. Though some refugees and migrants are fleeing political intimidation or specific threats and risks, the majority are escaping a strangled health care system and a broken economy where the minimum salary is equivalent to around two US dollars. Long-term protection and the right of entry in host countries are therefore fundamental for Venezuelans. However, they may be interested in returning to Venezuela for short stints to visit family and attend events like weddings, funerals, and holidays.
The global definition of ‘refugee’, and the one proposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is consistently linked to being in exile, unable to return to their country. Venezuelans in Latin America have shown, instead, the possibility of requiring protection outside the spectre of exile. They may return to their country to visit their children left with relatives or celebrate family milestones, thus demanding a protection space not covered in the present system. Some could argue that this shows that they are not in need of refugee protection and could return to Venezuela. UNHCR has at times argued against this stance: although most Venezuelans would not be recognised under the 1951 convention, the majority would be recognised under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, a Latin American instrument that expanded the definition of ‘refugee’ to include the concepts of generalised violence and serious threats to public order. In other reports, UNHCR has sidestepped the migrant-refugee question by simply referring to the group as displaced Venezuelans outside of the country, perhaps also searching for a more dynamic and flexible category.
Countries in the region have applied the Cartagena Declaration unevenly. The majority of countries have upheld non-refoulement for Venezuelans, while Brazil recognised over 20,000 asylum seekers as refugees on the basis of widespread human rights violations in Venezuela, and Colombia has recognised hardly any Venezuelans in their territory as such. Governments have created a mixed bag of protection systems. Costa Rica recently introduced a new asylum category for Venezuelans, among others, whose asylum cases have been rejected. Chile created a ‘democratic responsibility’ visa specifically for Venezuelans. Venezuelans in Colombia have been able to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic and are expected to be able to re-enter Colombia when the borders reopen. The recognition of a dual concept, where refugees deserve protection from refoulement and the right to re-enter their country of origin when they please or are able, is an important step towards a protection system that matches the current fluidity of forced migration with the different reasons that compel migrants and refugees to leave their country.
Latin American countries demonstrate a forward-thinking model, albeit one with gaps, to address mutable forced migration. Venezuelan migrants and refugees have required protection in host countries and protection from being returned against their will without losing the individual option of returning to Venezuela for short- or medium-term periods. The Cartagena Declaration’s expanded definition of refugee status shows a broadened path for refugees that would aid refugees worldwide. Countries outside of the region would benefit from adopting some of the measures taken, as the global protection system would similarly benefit from Cartagena’s expanded understanding. Protection should be further disentangled from ideas of exile to include and encourage refugee decision-making that at times includes a trip home to a country that, while certainly not possible to live in, has not banished the refugee.
Carlyn Greenfield is an independent consultant whose research focuses on migration, borders, and security in the Americas. She is a recent graduate of the Double Degree in International Affairs from Sciences Po and the London School of Economics and holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from King’s College London. You can find her on Twitter @_cgreenfield.