Analysis | Facilitating the voluntary return of Venezuelan nationals

Part 1: Lessons learned from CIREFCA in Guatemala

Ishanee Chanda and Margaret Joyce

This piece is the first in a two-part series on facilitating voluntary return for Venezuelans to their home country.

A golden sunset over several skyscrapers.
Maracay, Aragua, Venezuela (Image: Jorge Salvador on Unsplash)

As Venezuela’s political and economic collapse continues unabated, so too do the resulting humanitarian and displacement crises. Despite repeated domestic and international calls for Nicolás Maduro’s ouster as president, he remains firmly in place. A way out of the crisis seems, for now, a long way off.

Yet a resolution to Venezuela’s political crisis need not be a precondition for sustainable solutions to the country’s displacement crisis. In humanitarian circles, voluntary repatriation, defined as the facilitated return of displaced people with their informed consent, is often the preferred displacement solution where possible, as host communities increasingly find themselves unable to provide for refugees and displaced persons over the long term. This is likely to be the case for Venezuelans, considering the scale of the crisis and level of assistance required has left host countries across Latin America and the Caribbean struggling to absorb the 5 million Venezuelans that have fled their country.

Map of Latin America and the Caribbean displaying high concentrations of Venezuelans displaced to Colombia and Peru.
4.6 million Venezuelans are displaced within Latin America and the Caribbean (Map: R4V)

Given the strain host countries are facing, and the complexities of voluntary repatriation and return programs, the international community, and displaced Venezuelans themselves, should start considering the conditions under which safe return to Venezuela would be possible, even without a clear resolution to the country’s political crisis. Though the scale and pace of the Venezuelan exodus is unprecedented, host countries and their international partners can look to the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) for guidance. In particular, CIREFCA’s role in the voluntary repatriation of Guatemalan refugees in the 1990s following the country’s civil war can provide lessons learned for the voluntary return and repatriation of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

CIREFCA was created in May 1989 in response to protracted civil wars across Central America and regional governments’ recognition of the need to address forced displacement throughout the conflict-resolution process. A collaboration between Central American governments, UN agencies, and international donors, CIREFCA conceptualized long-term peace in the region as achievable only through a resolution to the displacement crises. CIREFCA thus aimed to find lasting solutions to displacement by linking displacement, peace, and development together in Central America.

Particularly relevant to the Venezuelan case are CIREFCA’s guidelines on voluntary repatriation. Considered the “preferred solution” to Central America’s refugee and displacement crisis, voluntary repatriation became the primary focus for CIREFCA and its international donors. Voluntary return, according to CIREFCA, would allow refugees and displaced citizens to maximize their rights by allowing returnees to claim protection by the state.

CIREFCA put its guidance into practice with the voluntary repatriation of Guatemalan refugees throughout the 1990s. Between 1960 and 1996, the country was engulfed in a civil war between leftist guerrilla groups and successive military governments which displaced 1.5 million people. An additional 200,000 Guatemalans fled to Mexico, 45,000 of whom were officially registered as refugees by UNHCR. Considering the prominence of displacement in the Civil War, it is fitting, then, that displaced Guatemalans, particularly Guatemalan refugees in Mexico and Guatemalan returnees assisted through CIREFCA, were among the most active civil society groups in the country’s peace negotiations.

In many ways, CIREFCA’s rights-based educational programs allowed for the “direct participation” of Guatemalan refugees and returnees in the peace process. By educating Guatemalan refugees on their human rights, CIREFCA enabled Guatemalan refugees to advocate for themselves throughout the voluntary repatriation process. Doing so gave Guatemalan refugees a degree of agency over both the conditions of their return and the peace process that followed, preserving not only their rights, but also their dignity.

Additionally, CIREFCA’s guiding principles legitimized displaced Guatemalans’ claims for assistance and reparations vis-à-vis the state for the human rights violations they endured throughout the civil war. In outlining states’ obligations to displaced people and heightening Guatemalan refugees’ awareness of their rights, CIREFCA empowered Guatemalan refugees to reclaim some agency over the circumstances of their return. Overall, between 1984 and 1999, CIREFCA facilitated the voluntary return and repatriation of over 43,600 Guatemalan refugees.

CIREFCA’s success in repatriating Guatemalan refugees to Mexico provides a strong example of a regional approach to displacement and voluntary return in the Latin American context. Yet CIREFCA cannot be directly copied in Venezuela, given the differences between the Guatemalan and Venezuelan conflicts. First, the scale of displacement is substantially larger in the Venezuelan than the Guatemalan case. The Guatemalan voluntary return efforts targeted 45,000 refugees, while there are nearly 5 million Venezuelans who have fled their country.

Scaling a CIREFCA-like voluntary return program to this magnitude will be challenging, in large part because the international community’s conceptualization of displaced Venezuelans varies considerably from that of displaced Guatemalans. Many Guatemalans were granted refugee status in neighboring countries during their country’s conflict. However, many displaced Venezuelans are considered migrants, rather than refugees, as they are fleeing generalized crises rather than direct persecution. As a result, many displaced Venezuelans have not been granted refugee status, which may make it challenging for the international community and host countries to identify and serve potential Venezuelan returnees.

Nevertheless, CIREFCA’s guiding principles, collaborative approach, and linking of migration, peace, and development offer a starting point for Venezuelan voluntary return programs. Most importantly, the case of CIREFCA in Guatemala showcases the potential for the political involvement of displaced communities in shaping their country’s future, contributing to peace processes, and negotiating the conditions of their own return. Indeed, the Guatemalan case underscores the fact that refugee and displaced communities are not merely victims of conflict; rather, they are political actors with stakes in their individual and collective futures. As the Guatemalan case demonstrates, one can be physically exiled without being completely detached from the state and political life in their country of origin, emphasizing how empowering it can be when these populations are included in the conversation about their own return.

The experience of Guatemalan returnees is a clear reminder of the importance of considering the political will and agency of the beneficiaries of voluntary return programs. Displaced Venezuelans should thus be viewed as key stakeholders with vested interests in their country’s future, even if they have fled. Regardless of their location or their current desire to return, Venezuelan migrants and refugees must be considered political actors and stakeholders in every step of the return and rebuilding processes. Venezuela’s future will be determined not only by those who stayed to weather the political storm, but by those who will return. It is critical that voluntary return programs are crafted not only with potential returnees’ best interests in mind, but also with their input, insight, and involvement.

Ishanee Chanda graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Science in Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University, with a focus on refugee and humanitarian emergencies. She is particularly interested in refugee and migration issues, resettlement practices, the protection of human rights, and the rise of right-wing nationalism across the globe.

Maggie Joyce graduated in May 2021 with a Master of Science in Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University, with a Global Politics & Security concentration. Maggie’s regional focus is Latin America, with an interest in security, humanitarian, and migration issues in the Western Hemisphere.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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