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In numbers: Understand the Venezuelan refugee crisis

A look at a failed state and the people trying to escape it



Story published on

January 15, 2020

Imagine you were once the richest country in your region. People would come from all over the continent, in search of a better life. Your democracy was stable, praised even. Now, that’s all part of a past you sometimes doubt was real. You earn $8 after a month’s work. There’s nothing left to buy, anyway. There’s nothing left from your democracy either. No hopes, only anger and frustration. And so, you start walking. It may even be days and weeks on end. This is what the Venezuelan drama looks like.

This year, the number of people fleeing Venezuela is expected to equal and even surpass the Syrian exodus at its peak. It is already one of the largest migration dramas of modern history: over 4.7 million by December 2019 official data. Unlike the Syrian crisis, this one is severely underfunded, which has huge implications for a region plagued by instabilty and social unrest. In late 2019, I’ve travelled across South America and witnessed how the Venezuelan crisis unfoldes on the continent. 

This is a look at the numbers, in order to understand the scale of this tragedy. You need to see the human stories as well. They are HERE

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Behind the numbers in Venezuela | The human stories

Meet Venezuelans who fled and locals who are expected to be their hosts.

As of this writing, the number of Venezuelans outside their country must have equaled that of the 4.8 million Syrians that have fled their war-torn nation by 2015, the year when this migrant crisis peaked in Europe. The international community’s answer, as we will see, has been very different.

The speed of displacement is much faster in the case of Venezuelans than it was in that of Syrian refugees. 

Between 6.5 and even 8 million Venezuelans could live outside their home country in 2020. That’s compared to an estimated number of 6.7 million Syrian refugees. It’s, obviously, not a race, but a warning sign. 

From riches to rags. Venezuela’s story

The Venezuelan economy's demise

Contraction between 2013-2018: 45%

Inflation in 2019: 500 000% – IMF

Inflation projection for 2020: 10 million % – IMF

94% of population under the poverty line in 2018

Minimum wage worth $8/month (Bloomberg)

Malnourished and without education
21% of Venezuelans are malnourished

70% of Venezuelan children lack access to regular education

Source: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell

Once the richest country in Latin America, Venezuela was the place the other peoples fled to, when their nations were plagued by violence, dictatorships and economic hardship.

Isabel Allende’s stories of Venezuelan opulence when she, as tens of thousands of other Chileans, was forced to take reffuge here during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, are particularly striking in compared to the current reality of life in Venezuela.

What was once even a praised democracy, with the largest known oil reserves in the world, has become a state with the highest inflation on the Planet: 500 000% in 2019 and a projected 10 million (!) per cent in 2020, according to the IMF.

Inflation in 2019: 500 000%

Inflation projection for 2020: 10 million % (IMF)

Minimum wage INCRESEAD (!) to $8/month

In October 2019, the minimum wage in Venezuela was worth $8 a month, which, hard as it may be to believe, was only after an increase. When I interviewed Max in Santa Marta, he told me the wage was $3/month.

There are no official statistics on the fast and constant evolution of prices in Venezuela, but, for example, when the minimum wage was worth $2, that was not enough to buy a kilo of meat, acording to this report. 

Venezuela is now effectively a failed state. And as a new year began, Nicolas Maduro staged a takeover of what was perceived as the last democratic institution of the country, the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The images of Juan Guaidó, the one seen by the international community as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, trying to climb the fence of the Parliament so that he could be re-elected as its leader, are telling signs of a tough year to come.

4.76 million Venezuelan refugees (Dec. 2019) – Source HERE

Projection for 2020: 6.5 – 8 million Venezuelan refugees – Source: UNHCR, Brookings Institution

Top countries with displaced Venezuelans

Colombia has welcomed the largest number of displaced Venezuelans: 1.6 million. That’s the response of a poor country that is only now rebuilding itself after decades of poverty.

Colombia is a country whose people go to other countries in search of a better life. It’s still the place with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. It has no social and economic infrastructure for 1.6 million extra people. And still, it received them, helped them, sent the Venezuelan children to school.

Not less impressive, Ecuador and Peru, countries with serious social problems of their own, have welcomed 1.2 million Venezuelans. Another half a million are in Chile and Argentina combined.

Colombia: 1.63 million Venezuelans

Peru: 863 000  Venezuelans (Source)

A tragically underfunded response

Even though they might equal in size, these two crises have not been approaced with the same level of concern by the international community. The same level of financially-proven concern, that is.

There exists an abundance of experts and reports signaling a huge underfunding for the response to the Venezuelan crisis. When it was called upon to react in the face of the Syrian exodus, the international community spent a cumulative $7.4 billion on response efforts in the first four years, acording to a Brookings report.

After four years since the onset of the Venezuelan crisis, the international community has spent just $580 million, the report adds. This would translate into a $1,500 per Syrian refugee and $125 per Venezuelan refugee.

Surely there must be a connection between the fact that the Syrian crisis spilled over into the rich countries of Europe, while the Venezuelan one is mostly constrained between the edges of South and Central America. 

International funding in millions of dollars & foreign aid per person in $ (Data: Brookings)


The Syrian refugee crisis

Venezuelan crisis

$ / Syrian refugee

$ / Venezuelan refugee

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