Venezuelans Deserve Refugee Status
With 280,000 Venezuelan children expected to die of starvation this year, it is little wonder that the country's people are stampeding for the exits at a rate that is unprecedented in the Americas. In this context, the United Nations is right to urge countries to grant Venezuelans refugee status.
CAMBRIDGE – Venezuela is in the news again. Through unprecedented treachery, President Nicolás Maduro awarded himself victory in the presidential election on May 20. Given that the blatantly pro-government electoral council had delisted the three main opposition parties and disqualified two major political leaders, much of the opposition boycotted the process. The two other candidates who participated did not recognize the result, given the many violations that took place. Neither did the United States, Canada, the European Union and most Latin American countries.
Despite official efforts at intimidation – for example, voters were forced to identify themselves in official party booths at the risk of being disqualified from social programs – abstention reached record levels. While the outcome of the election was never in doubt, the event destroyed any pretense of legitimacy by Maduro.
In the meantime, Venezuela’s catastrophic economic collapse is continuing at an astonishing rate. Food prices have soared by a factor of 100 in the year to April 2018, and by more than 200% in the last month alone. The price of the dollar has increased by a factor of over 100 since July 2017. According to OPEC’s monthly report, oil production has declined by 27% (equivalent to 520,000 barrels per day) in the 12 months to April of 2018. It now stands at 1.4 million bpd, two million barrels per day below where it was when Maduro’s predecessor and patron, Hugo Chávez, took power in 1999. The minimum wage, which is earned by the median worker, buys less than 900 calories a day – not enough to feed a person, let alone a family. The Catholic charity CARITAS Venezuela projects that 280,000 children will die of hunger this year.
Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise that Venezuelans are stampeding out of the country at a pace that is unprecedented in the Americas. While people once left in planes to destinations such as the US, Spain, and Panama in the hope of a better life abroad, today they walk across the border to Colombia and Brazil, or try to reach Aruba, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago by boat, motivated by sheer desperation.
Estimates of the outflow abound. Colombia has tried to impose some order on the process by asking Venezuelans who have entered the country legally to register. 203,000 did so this past month, not counting the 63,000 who registered in a similar effort last year. But how many have not registered yet? Colombia’s government believes that some 550,000 Venezuelans were in the country as of the end of 2017. And how many have entered the country since?
The scale of the outflow is hard to gauge. To assess it, the two of us have been working with Muhammed Yildirim of Koç University in Istanbul to devise an emigration indicator using Twitter data. Twitter is particularly appropriate because over 28% of Venezuelans had an account in 2016, and because the platform allows us to identify account-holders current location. While Twitter users are not a random sample of the population, they are quite representative, as their geographic footprint is highly correlated with that of the population as a whole.
Using data collected from the Twitter Streaming API, which contains a random sample of 1% of the world’s tweets, we tracked people who tweeted from Venezuela between February and April 2017, and then looked at where they tweeted from in February-April 2018. We look at those who tweeted only from Venezuela in the first period, and tweeted only from abroad in the second period. We deduct those that tweeted only from abroad in the first period and only from Venezuela in the second. We also control for the fact that migrants tend to tweet less than others, making it harder for us to find them in the 1% sample. Our estimate of net migration is 7.37% for the nine-month period between April 2017 and February 2018, which represents an annualized migration rate of 9.7%.
Given that Venezuela is a country of 30 million people, this represent 2.9 million people per year. Moreover, the geographic footprint of these migrants is different from previous ones: 24% are in Colombia, 15% in both Chile and Argentina, and about 5% each in the US, Spain, Peru, and Ecuador. Because the economic situation continues to deteriorate rapidly, it is reasonable to expect that this massive exodus will accelerate.
The international community has had trouble deciding what to do about Venezuela. The European Union and some political forces in Venezuela have asked for a new election, but holding fair elections while Maduro remains in power is a contradiction in terms. Others have advocated more forceful action. But, in the meantime, how should countries deal with the outflow of Venezuelans?
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been urging countries to grant Venezuelans refugee status. The 1984 Cartagena Declaration commits them to it. But countries in the region, fearing a large number of refugees and the impact they might have on government budgets, have opposed such a move. To the dismay of the UNHCR, Trinidad and Tobago has even deported Venezuelan refugees.
The international community may need time to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis, but that is time that Venezuelans cannot afford. Countries can argue that they have actively sought a diplomatic solution and have even offered humanitarian assistance, only to be rejected by the Maduro regime. But countries are committed by international law and basic morality to call a spade a spade and grant Venezuelans refugee status. Doing so will not only right a wrong, but will also benefit them, thanks to the energy and creativity of good people who want nothing more than to live and work productively and without fear.