By Judith Faucher, International Projects Funding Officer
Canada and the European Union are co-organizing an International Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants and their Host Countries and Communities in Brussels, Belgium, from March 16-17, 2023. The conference aims to highlight progress in addressing the Venezuelan migration crisis; show solidarity with host countries and communities; raise awareness; and identify future actions. This is therefore an apt moment to revisit the situation and Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada’s response to it.
Since 2015, Venezuela has been plunged into a major social, political and economic crisis. A drastic fall in the price of oil, from which the country still derives nearly 90 per cent of its export revenue, combined with falling production, corruption and economic sanctions have led to hyperinflation, the collapse of the health system, food shortages, electricity and drinking water cuts and prolonged civil unrest.
A desperate situation
Although poverty rates fell for the first time in seven years, over half the Venezuelan population remains poor and social factors are playing an increasing role in causing poverty (see National Survey of Living Conditions in Spanish1).
Young children and pregnant women are particularly affected by malnutrition and food insecurity. Lacking economic opportunities and social services, many are forced to take desperate measures like eating less, drinking unsafe water and even resorting to sex work to make ends meet. Women and children have become more vulnerable to trafficking, gender-based violence is widespread and there are reports of femicide. There is therefore an increasing need for protection services.
A people on the move
This situation has created an international displacement crisis that is second only to the Syrian one. The Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants (R4V) estimates that over 7.1 million people have fled Venezuela and that over 6 million of them are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia, where 2.48 million Venezuelans have arrived, is the principal host country. Other significant regional hosts include Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.
These host countries are under enormous pressure to provide basic health, education and protection services to Venezuelan migrants, most of whom are seeking economic opportunity. Driven by xenophobia, rejection or racism or the desire to reunite with their families, many Venezuelans also eventually return home. Their mobility, however, is constrained by the build-up of Colombian armed groups at the border and by skirmishes between the growing numbers of Venezuelan militias and the Venezuelan army.
A sustained response
Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada has closely monitored the crisis since its outset. We have invested $3.825 million in supporting the Venezuelan people through our Caritas network partners.
We supported two projects in Venezuela. From 2017-2018, our partner Caritas Venezuela responded to urgent health and nutritional needs with funding from Global Affairs Canada. In 2019, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s support enabled Caritas Venezuela and Catholic Relief Services to provide cash transfers for food to 4,416 people from 884 households (98 per cent headed by women).
In Colombia, Global Affairs Canada funding has allowed us to help Cáritas Colombiana mount a multisectoral response to the Venezuelan migrants’ humanitarian needs since 2020. Over three phases (2020-2023), the project will have served some 40,000 people, up to 60 per cent of whom are expected to be women. The holistic response includes the provision of hygiene kits (including diapers and menstrual hygiene products as appropriate), cash transfers, transport subsidies, safe lodging, primary healthcare, referrals to specialized healthcare and psychosocial services.
Fleeing Venezuela in 2020, Karla Roxana Goméz, 29, came to North Santander, Colombia, with her husband and two sons aged eight and 10. Following a miscarriage, she recently became pregnant again. Despite having a high-risk pregnancy, she had not had any check-ups or vaccinations. “We could not even afford to eat,” she said. Her husband’s carwash job paid so little that even soap and toilet paper seemed like luxuries.
After assessing Goméz’s needs, Cáritas Colombiana began providing her hygiene kits, psychosocial support, referrals to medical follow-ups and transportation subsidies to get to appointments. They also helped her secure a temporary protection permit on humanitarian grounds so she could access Colombian government health services. They also arranged for her to have an otherwise unaffordable ultrasound scan and moved her family from the hilltop house that she found difficult to walk to in her pregnant state to a more accessible home.
Nearing her due date at the time of this report, Goméz had caught up with her vaccinations and was in good health. “I had asked God for a lot for my baby,” she said, “And He put you in my path to help us! I am very grateful for your support.”
Although Luisa Leonor, 50, had never imagined having to sell handbags in the street, it was honest work that she was happy to do upon arriving in Palmira, Colombia, two years ago. Then, a motorcycle accident left her too broken for the hardships that most migrants face. In 2022, just as her wounds began healing, another problem appeared: her abdomen began swelling up inexplicably.
It was at this low point that Leonor approached Cáritas Colombiana. They rapidly assessed her needs and began providing psychological care. A sociolegal team helped her with becoming “regularized,” registering for health insurance and applying for a temporary protection permit. Cash grants helped tide her over until her benefits kicked in. Meanwhile, she was referred to a medical charity that came up with a grim diagnosis: the abdominal swelling was likely a cancerous tumour.
After she got state medical coverage, Cáritas Colombiana stayed with Leonor and subsidized her conveyance to oncology appointments. They accompanied her through the post-surgery agony of waiting for biopsy results and the celebration of her cancer-free status, which Leonor deemed “a great miracle.” She said, “May God keep blessing you, so that you can keep helping those who come from Venezuela.”
Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada supports the following recommendations made to the international community by the Caritas Internationalis Working Group on the Venezuelan Crisis (which includes 11 Caritas agencies) in its November 2022 joint statement:
- Support efforts to improve living conditions in Venezuela, especially for those who remain in or return to the country.
- Take cognizance of new exodus routes and the “feminization” of the crisis evident in the increasing vulnerability of women to exploitation and trafficking.
- Promote the recognition, protection, legalization and integration of Venezuelan refugees in host countries so that they can live in dignity.
Caritas Venezuela’s director, Janeth Márquez, will advocate for this at the International Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. Meanwhile, we reaffirm our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and with host communities throughout Latin America. Your support is essential to enable our partners to continue serving them.
- The Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida (National Survey of Living Conditions), based at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, was initiated in 2014 by a coalition of academics who, facing a paucity of government data, wanted to generate reliable statistics for researchers, policymakers, legislators and civil society organizations.