Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Wider Effect of the Venezuelan Exodus

The exodus of Venezuelans goes further afield. In Spain, Venezuelan asylum-seekers have come to outnumber applicants from everywhere else.

Most of the asylum applications filed in Spain in recent years have come not from African or Middle Eastern refugees, but rather South American nationals. The number of Venezuelan asylum-seekers, in particular, has risen dramatically.

"For three years now, most of those seeking safety in Spain have been Venezuelan nationals," Maria Jesus Vega, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), told DW. She noted that Venezuelans filed 4,200 asylum applications in 2016, 10,600 in 2017, and 12,700 so far this year. According Spain's department for asylum-seekers and refugees, OAR, the second-highest number of asylum applications were filed by Colombian nationals.

The sudden increase in asylum applications by Venezuelans "is a clear signal how much conditions have deteriorated in the South American country," said Jesus Vega.

The latest report by the European Asylum Support Office shows that only 100 Venezuelans sought asylum in European Union member states in 2014, one year after Nicolas Maduro became the Venezuelan president. By 2017, this figure had climbed to 12,020. For various historical, linguistic, cultural and family-related reasons, Spain is the number one EU destination for Venezuelans fleeing their homeland — provided they have enough money to do so.

The UNHCR estimates that a total of 2.3 million Venezuelans currently live abroad and that 1.6 million of them have left the country since 2015. However, Barcelona-based sociologist Tomas Paez Bravo, who holds Venezuelan citizenship, estimates that 3.3 million of his compatriots are actually seeking a better life abroad at present. He has accused the Venezuelan National Institute of Statistics of keeping the real figures under wraps in order to downplay the ongoing exodus. Spain's Commission for Refugees has reported that only 1,500 of last year's 10,600 asylum applications filed by Venezuelan nationals were processed — and that of these, only 15 were successful, explained Paez Bravo. "Spain is unable to process the vastly increased number of asylum applications and many applications are rejected — that means large numbers of Venezuelans are forced to live in Spain illegally," he said.

The UNHCR's Jesus Vega noted Eurostat data show that by April 2018, more than 17,700 asylum applications filed by Venezuelans had not yet been processed. "Spain's Interior Ministry has admitted it needs to make more resources available to process applications more quickly," she said. Jesus Vega believes the influx of Venezuelan asylum-seekers is still manageable for Spain, particularly compared with the large numbers of Venezuelans who have fled to nearby Colombia, Peru and Brazil, but that the slow pace of Spanish bureaucracy has nonetheless forced thousands of them into a state of legal limbo. "Neither the Spanish citizenry, nor its political class seem aware of what is currently happening in Venezuela," she said, adding that Spanish officials fail to understand that Venezuelans are not just fleeing political persecution, but also the country's dire shortage of food and medicine.

Venezuelans, whose country has grown increasingly authoritarian and lawless amid an economic collapse, now make up the largest group by nationality of people seeking asylum in the United States. But they are increasingly being denied and must either return to their country or join the more than 2 million who have become refugees in other countries. Nearly 28,000 Venezuelan asylum petitions, some for more than one individual, were submitted in 2017 by people making “affirmative” claims that they assert upon or after their arrival in the U.S. It was 50 percent more than a year earlier and five times as many as in 2015. Thousands more have made “defensive” claims to stave off deportation after visas expired or after their initial petitions were rejected. Last year, at least 250 Venezuelans were deported, up 36 percent from a year earlier. At least 258 were deported in the first half of this year. Another 265 are detained, awaiting deportation. Officials won’t say how many had their asylum claims denied but lawyers and other experts say that it’s the majority. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University, found that nearly half the Venezuelan asylum applications that have come before immigration judges in the last five years have been denied. 

To qualify for asylum, migrants must prove they face an imminent threat upon their return of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
“The general violence, the chaos, the economy aren’t enough,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, an immigration lawyer who runs a legal clinic at Florida International University in Miami. “Many Venezuelans apply for political asylum thinking they are coming out of hell and someone is going to protect them but, sadly, that’s not the law.”
Many Venezuelans believe they will be allowed to claim asylum because the U.S. has been such a staunch critic of the government of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.  Advocates for immigrants say asylum seekers misunderstand the system for a reason. “It is a contradiction in the U.S. immigration policy that we often condemn conditions in a foreign country and then deport people to those conditions,” said Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
The Venezuelan government said that it had received thousands of requests from Venezuelans seeking to return home from abroad. Caracas lashed out at "xenophobic campaigns" against Venezuelans migrants in Latin America.

Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said that Venezuelan embassies across the world had received "thousands of requests for help" from its citizens seeking repatriation. Rodriguez criticized Peru, Ecuador and Colombia as countries where Venezuelans have been the victims of "xenophobia and hate crimes.

President Maduro had sought to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled his country, asking them "to return from economic slavery."

"Stop cleaning toilets abroad and come back to live in your homeland," Maduro said. Maduro has blamed the country's crisis on what he says is an "economic war" that has been waged against his government and has branded the Venezuelan exodus a "right-wing campaign."  The Venezuelan government chartered a plane that brought back 89 citizens from Peru, where Maduro said they had suffered "racism, contempt, economic persecution and slavery."

Organization of American States (OAS) chief Luis Almagro said Maduro's "dictatorial government" had created an "exasperating" situation and shown "a complete disassociation from the people's problems" as well as an "absolute inability" to provide "basic necessities."

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