Analysis | Incentivizing voluntary return for Venezuelans
Part 2: Recommendations for the international community and the Venezuelan state
This piece is the second in a two-part series on voluntary repatriation for Venezuelans. The first piece focused on developing an inclusive framework for repatriation. This piece looks at the repatriation process itself, with recommendations for the Venezuelan state and the international community.
The magnitude of the Venezuelan displacement crisis is unprecedented in Latin America and the Caribbean: over 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country as a result of the ongoing political and economic crisis, with many seeking refuge within the region. While there are currently limited prospects for a political and economic resolution to the crisis under the Maduro regime, it is imperative that both the Venezulan state and the international community begin laying the groundwork for the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of displaced Venezuelans. However, repatriation is not enough; reintegration of returnees, rehabilitation, and reconstruction are all equally important to retain migrants and discontinue the cycle of displacement. Without successful reintegration of Venezuelan returnees back into their communities, there is a high risk that many may migrate out of the country again to seek a better, more stable life.
Existing frameworks and theories on displaced persons and refugees tend to promote three durable solutions to displacement: integration, resettlement, and voluntary repatriation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) encourages repatriation as the preferred solution to displacement, to ease the burden on host states, while allowing displaced persons to return to their countries of origin. UNHCR typically facilitates repatriation when there is an agreement between the host country and the country of origin that refugees will be allowed to return home safely.
To ensure the success and sustainability of these repatriation programs, UNHCR relies on the U.N. 4R Program Approach, which requires states to commit to reintegration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction, alongside repatriation. Following this framework, Venezuelan voluntary return procedures must start with repatriation, but they cannot end there. To fully reintegrate returnees and rehabilitate communities, plans for community building, access to services, livelihoods, psychosocial support, and justice are essential for both those who return and those who have stayed.
However, Venezuela faces immediate challenges to this reconstruction process, starting with the economic crisis. The Venezuelan economy is in dire straits. The country is in its sixth year of recession. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela alone have caused the state to lose between $17 billion to $31 billion in revenue. Hyperinflation has become such a problem that the Venezuelan Central Bank has announced that it will eliminate six zeros from prices in the local currency. For the Venezuelan state to begin to lay the groundwork for returns, it must get its economic crisis under control, but it cannot do so on its own.
The political will and buy-in of stakeholders across local, national, regional, and international levels is a prerequisite for the implementation of an efficient and effective Venezuelan voluntary return program. Currently, the most prominent actors in the Venezuelan crisis are INGOs and multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR and UNDP; states that have either vocally supported or admonished the Maduro regime; regional actors such the Quito Process countries and migrant and refugee host countries; and the Venezuelan state itself. To best coordinate this process, we recommend that these actors come together to develop a charter outlining the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder in a way that delegates authority and functionality to the requisite party, while also creating robust accountability mechanisms and feedback loops for consistent monitoring and evaluation. We propose the following roles and responsibilities for each of the primary identified stakeholders as follows:
The U.N. agencies, such as UNHCR and UNDP, must collaborate effectively not only with each other, but also with refugee and migrant host governments, the Venezuelan government, and local NGOs to address host community and migrant needs. UNHCR can use its existing repatriation frameworks to outline safe and efficient voluntary return programs to Venezuela from each host country. U.N. agencies must work in partnership with each state government to ensure that migrants have proper documentation and legal status, are able to migrate with their families, and are well-protected during their journey home. UNHCR must also work with the Venezuelan government to provide initial food aid and shelter at points of return.
Meanwhile, the UNDP should focus its efforts on long-term development projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, predominantly in countries where local government institutions are overwhelmed by the continuous influx of refugees and migrants. UNDP must be careful to adhere to its mandate to aid all communities without discrimination in order to reduce tensions between host communities and Venezuelan migrants. Development projects should take into account local needs and contexts in order to tie long-term development to the humanitarian response and conflict resolution process. The larger the development investment in the region, the greater the potential to achieve long-term stability, benefitting Venezuelan migrants in the long-term whether they choose to return or remain where they are.
The broader international community
The primary role of the international community should be to provide financial support for Venezuela’s reconstruction. Donor countries must be ready to offer aid, assistance, and guidance in the reconstruction of the Venezuelan state, especially as the first cycles of migrants begin to return. Additionally, the contributions of the international community will largely fund development projects in Venezuela and across the region as a whole. Without these sources of funding, economic stability and long-term resolution become largely unattainable.
Countries with active sanctions against the Venezuelan state should consider their continued repercussions on the country’s economic stability. While many countries levied these sanctions in response to human rights abuses by the Maduro regime and the military, lifting these sanctions is the first step in stimulating economic activity in the country and incentivizing return. While sanctions and conditional aid have been used as accountability mechanisms in the past, they are deepening and prolonging the economic crisis, diminishing the possibility of voluntary return. Some may fear that lifting sanctions may signal to the Maduro regime that it can continue engaging in large-scale human rights abuses against its population. However, countries can still apply pressure to the Maduro government through the continued use of targeted sanctions, while easing the broader sanctions that have devastated average citizens. Sanction relief can also be used as leverage in potential negotiations with the Venezuelan government.
The 14 Quito Process states should play the most prominent role in the coordination of voluntary return. This will involve further communication with each other, coordination with the U.N. agencies, and advocacy for international support. The Quito Process countries should work together to develop the primary organizing framework for voluntary return in the region, which states may use to develop voluntary return programs in conjunction with the Venezuelan government.
Other countries hosting Venezuelan migrants and refugees will need to be heavily involved in the logistical and technical implementation of voluntary return initiatives. For example, countries with large populations of Venezuelan migrants and refugees must assist with legal documentation efforts, transportation, and allow U.N. agencies access to their countries so they may perform their functions as needed. Most importantly, these countries must uphold international refugee law and comply with the principle of non-refoulement. To this end, countries with sizable populations of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who decide not to return to Venezuela will need to pursue development and local integration projects to foster economic inclusion and social cohesion.
Facilitating voluntary returns for displaced Venezuelans will require intense collaboration between all relevant stakeholders. If the international community emphasizes voluntary return as a solution to humanitarian and economic crises globally, it must also support those countries in providing the necessary environment to support their populations who chose to come home. This does not promise to be a short process, not least due to the challenges of dealing with the Maduro regime; instead, this kind of investment is long-term and strategic in nature. In particular, donor countries must review the efficacy of sanctions on the Venezuelan government and how they may be used as part of the negotiation process. While there needs to be a balance between encouraging economic growth in Venezuela and pushing the Maduro regime to the negotiation table, voluntary returns will never be a viable option in an inhospitable economy. In tandem, the international community must invest in institution building and service provision to bring stability to not only Venezuela but the Western Hemisphere as a whole.
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.
Read the first piece in this series here: