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Americas

Could there be a Venezuelan refugee crisis?

Several Latin American countries fear that the crisis in Venezuela will unleash a wave of refugees. Colombia wants to help, but it fears proposed border refugee camps could aggravate the problem more than alleviate it.

"Venezuela is my worst nightmare," Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos confessed on November 9, when receiving an award in London for his efforts securing a peace agreement in his country.

"An implosion in Venezuela would indeed be a great threat to Colombia, both for the peace process and for the 2018 presidential elections," confirmed political analyst Roberto Cajamarca Gomez, a former Colombian diplomat, while speaking with DW.

The worst-case scenario would arise out of Venezuela declaring bankruptcy. "People in Venezuela are not only dying of starvation, they are also dying due tolack of medical drugs and the disastrous state of the country's healthcare system," said Venezuelan attorney Elenis Rodriguez, who is attempting to set up a humanitarian aid program while in Colombian exile.

Colombian medics tend to refugees from Venezuela (Alcaldía de Soledad)

Colombian medics tend to refugees from Venezuela. Many cross over to get food or medicine.

Fear of a humanitarian crisis

Several neighboring countries, among them Peru and Colombia, have already begun taking in Venezuelan refugees. Others, such as Panama, have closed their borders, said Cajamarca Gomez. In the face of a looming humanitarian crisis, a confederation known as the Lima Group has called for "a crisis summit to be convened to discuss the situation in Venezuela and to organize and coordinate humanitarian aid." The Lima Group consists of 11 Latin American countries plus Canada.

Read more: Chile willing to offer Venezuelan opposition politician political asylum

Colombia's migration authority estimated in July that nearly half a million Venezuelans entered the country through a special program for which no passport is needed. The authority also thought between 100,000 and 140,000 Venezuelans entered through unauthorized means. In addition to sharing these numbers on Twitter, the authority said that 52% of Venezuelans who had entered Colombia through the passport-less system came to buy food or aid.

"As a government, we cannot ignore the reality facing the people of Venezuela, and we certainly cannot close our doors to our neighbors. It is for those reasons that we have set up a special residency permit for Venezuelan citizens, one that regulates their refugee status and also affords them the right to work in Colombia," said Christian Krueger, director of the migration authority.

Yet the situation that Venezuelan refugees find themselves in appears to be far more problematic than the director suggests. According to media reports, many are willing to work for much less than minimum wage. They often work for cash and without health insurance. Many cannot afford accommodations, so they sleep at the bus stations at which they arrived — in Bogota, Cali or Barranquilla.

Read more: Venezuelan refugees welcome in Peru

Two woman and a baby wait on the side of the road in Colombia (Getty Images/AFP/L. Acosta)

Many arrivals from Venezuela in Colombia have no place to stay

Implications for the Colombian peace process

The border between Colombia and Venezuela is 2,200 kilometers (1,370 miles) long. In the event that the crisis in Venezuela gets worse and facing the threat of a major wave of refugees, Colombian officials are contemplating setting up seven refugee camps near the border. However, the move would also pose a dilemma. 

"If you announce that you are setting up refugee camps, it could be interpreted as an invitation and eventually make the situation worse still," a government official told DW. Should that become the case, Colombia would be in desperate need of assistance from other countries as well as international aid organizations if it is to have any chance of mastering the humanitarian crisis, said Cajamarca Gomez.

Read more: Brazil braced for influx of Venezuelan refugees

Although no party in Colombia is currently calling to close the border, President Santos' nightmare is not unfounded. "The more the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela escalates, the more ground the extreme right and opponents of the peace process will gain," Cajamarca Gomez finds.

The president's nightmare is primarily political in nature. Nevertheless, the fate of people seeking to flee the chaos in Venezuela is an issue that is just as pressing. How to deal with that, it seems, is a question that no one in Latin America has any idea how to answer.  

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