How Biden Can Help Venezuelan Refugees | Opinion

Which nation ranks first in the Western Hemisphere in the number of its citizens who have fled to other lands? Hint: It isn't in Central America, where Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans have been waiting at America's door. It's Venezuela. As of last May, more than 5 million Venezuelans have left the country and approximately 4.9 million Venezuelans remained in Latin America, most of them going to Colombia or Peru. By this measure of homegrown desperation, Venezuela ranks second in the world of people displaced, behind only Syria.

There's no mystery why, given the horrors and troubles the Venezuelan people have endured. Extreme hunger, poverty, massive human rights violations and the collapse of the health care system have left Venezuelans in very dire circumstances.

The COVID-19 pandemic stemmed the rush of Venezuelans leaving their families behind in hopes of a better life. In 2020, hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to Venezuela as conditions deteriorated in their host countries, where they faced evictions, massive job losses, hunger and discrimination. Now that borders are reopening, Venezuelan displacement is on the rise again. It is expected to keep growing, as the pandemic has made life harder for Venezuelans, and President Nicolás Maduro has shown no signs of relinquishing power. For refugees, the needs are urgent and extensive.

Currently, most of the responsibility for welcoming refugees and helping them has fallen on countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. But six years into this crisis, their support is dwindling. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP), led by the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is funded at $631 million to respond to Venezuelan displacement, meeting only 43 percent of what is required for an effective response. This has left an estimated 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees and affected host community members without any form of support from regional partners.

The region can do only so much given challenges like financial constraints, inequality and policy makers who are new to responding to displacement challenges. But the United States can share the responsibility.

Here are three things the Biden administration should do.

Venezuelan migrants walk
Venezuelan migrants walk along Route 5 north toward the city of Santiago, in Antofagasta, Chile, on Sept. 21, 2021. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

First, President Joe Biden must work with countries in the region—and furnish diplomatic support—to create a strategy for Venezuelan refugees that reinforces and steps up obligations under the Quito process, an initiative aiming to promote communication and coordination between countries receiving Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean. A regional approach is crucial because of the disparities in how countries treat refugees, which undermines the effectiveness of any response. Neighboring Colombia is relatively welcoming to refugees, while countries such as Chile and Curaçao are less so.

Second, the Biden administration must signal its solidarity with the Venezuelan people by committing additional dollars to host countries and through the RMRP, and by encouraging European and higher-income Latin American countries to donate more. In 2021, the European Union (EU) spent €82 million for the immediate relief of displaced Venezuelans, much less than it contributed for other large-scale displacement crises, such as in Syria. Likewise, the more affluent Latin American nations that haven't received as many refugees—Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil—should show regional solidarity by accepting more of them or by increasing their financial support. The U.S. should encourage the EU and Latin American governments to step up.

Finally, the Biden administration is in no position to encourage other countries to do the right thing if the U.S. doesn't do the same. To maintain its credibility, the U.S. government must agree to resettle more refugees from Venezuela, amending border policies to allow Venezuelans to seek asylum and to commit more money for multilateral efforts in underfunded areas like education, integration and protection. If the Biden administration continues to encourage other countries to block migration, it sends the wrong message and perpetuates the lack of protection and support that many Venezuelans need.

Displaced Venezuelans and their host communities are in dire need of assistance. By sharing this responsibility—with money, leadership and honoring our commitment to resettle refugees—the Biden administration can make good on its promises to help the Venezuelan people. It can also strengthen its ties in the region and signal to the world its support for refugees. In 2022, let's make sure that Venezuelans who've been driven from their families and homeland are a priority for President Biden.

Rachel Schmidtke is the advocate for Latin America at Refugees International, where she focuses on migration, asylum and refugee policies. Follow her on Twitter @r_schmidtke.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.