Migrants Aren’t Biological Weapons
By Kelsey Maddox, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow
As one of the hardest hit areas, Latin America is still suffering from an increasing spread of infections and deaths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Venezuela in particular continues to struggle to contain and mitigate the profound impacts of the virus due to the humanitarian crisis debilitating the country. Over the last decade, around five million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries because of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime causing an economic collapse that led the country into a nation-wide famine, leaving citizens with no reliable access to healthcare and experiencing regular shortages of water and electricity. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many migrants to return to Venezuela, unable to support themselves in the neighboring countries where they resided and forced to face additional hardship. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed shockingly weak infrastructures within Venezuela that are not equipped to protect their citizens. Unfortunately, vulnerable populations — including migrants and refugees — are hit the hardest when facing the challenges that stem from the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.
Before delving into the current state of Venezuela, it is important to understand why the country was experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in history prior to the pandemic. Since 2015, more than four million Venezuelans have left the country. This has placed Venezuela second, behind Syria, as a country of origin for people displaced across international borders. Corruption within the government has caused a rapid decline in oil production — an essential export — and a rate of inflation that has made daily life a struggle for the majority of the population. Services within food production and health care have been hit the hardest and basic necessities are hard to find. Between 2014 and 2016, food production in the country decreased by more than 60% while food prices have increased alongside rates of undernourishment among the population. With the population on the verge of famine, healthcare facilities were hardly in operation and lacked basic resources to serve patients. In 2018, the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation announced that 85% of essential medicine was scarce — putting thousands of people at risk for not getting medicine for common health conditions. These conditions have been the key reasons why Venezuelans have fled the country but the stressful conditions of the coronavirus pandemic has forced a massive influx of returnees.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s neighbors Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador — where the majority of the Venezuelan immigrants reside — are suffering from weaker economic infrastructures and are unable to provide jobs, housing, and other necessities to immigrants. Facing immense hardships, immigrants are making the hard decision of returning back to Venezuela, which was unable to provide for them in the first place. Upon their return, migrants remain unemployed and worried about where to find their next meal without any coverage by national social protection programs to provide a safety net.
The influx of migrants returning back to Venezuela followed the initial global shutdown. In March, in an attempt to follow safety guidelines, the Venezuelan government implemented protocols aimed to restrict movement within its borders and force returning asylum seekers to mandatory quarantine and testing prior to entering the country. They have also implemented a return capacity at 1,200 people each week, forcing returnees to wait in makeshift quarantine shelters. However, there are only 400 shelters nationwide and many are operating past their capacity. Those stuck in these shelters experience insufficient testing, safety protocols, and unsanitary conditions. In some cases, to avoid waiting at these shelters, some Venezuelans have slipped through unofficial border crossings or paid bribes to enter the country.
In addition to making returning an unsafe and tedious process, President Nicolas Maduro’s government condemned the returning migrants crossing through undesignated border crossings for “contaminating their communities” and “killing their families,” while also referring to those returning from neighboring countries as “biological weapons” and “camouflaged coup-plotters” being sent intentionally to infect the Venezuelan population. In cities like Maracaibo, police authorities patrolled the streets in search of Venezuelans who have re-entered the country without official approval. Police forces, armed pro-government gangs, and other security forces have used unlawful intimidation and persecution to enforce quarantine measures and punish critics of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Reports have varied from arbitrarily detaining people for not wearing masks or gathering in the streets to beating and torturing citizens for not following safety protocols. These instances of stigmatization, intimidation, and excessive use of force do nothing but make an already difficult situation even worse for vulnerable populations.
The situation isn’t much different for healthcare: once the pandemic hit, the already strained healthcare facilities in Venezuela proved unable to handle the rising COVID-19 cases in the country. Rather than strengthening these systems, the fault of the virus’ spread has been directed at the migrants returning home. Migrants have an increased chance of being exposed to COVID-19 due to most living in poverty, experiencing hunger, facing increased exposure to poor sanitation, and being unable to social distance while traveling across borders. As the most vulnerable during this pandemic, migrants also cannot rely on the healthcare facilities in Venezuela. According to Medicos Unidos de Venezuela, 67% of hospitals do not have personal protective equipment and 92% are reusing face coverings. In rural areas, hospitals face even worse conditions. The increase in prices of essential goods have led to regular shortages of clean water, electricity, and medicines at hospitals. Nurses lack adequate protective equipment to do their jobs, putting them at a higher risk of contracting the virus. Because of this, many have fled the country for their own safety. With unsafe conditions in hospitals and the number of nurses in the country decreasing, migrants remain at risk for contracting the virus.
Migrants have slipped from the purview of pandemic relief. Many are suddenly being forced to uproot their lives, travel once again across borders, and resettle during a period of severe instability and uncertainty. It also does not help that the Maduro regime has made it difficult for humanitarian aid to assist in pandemic recovery — a lot of which could have been directed towards aiding migrants. Civil society organizations are desperate for a way around these roadblocks. It has become critical to increase humanitarian aid from the international community to support hospitals and other recovery efforts that will slow the spread of the virus. An increase in funding that focuses on medical support, food supply, and emergency assistance towards refugees will fill in the gaps in Venezuela’s management of the crisis. Civil society, including foreign governments, NGOs, and financial institutions, all share the responsibility of contributing towards economic and humanitarian relief. Organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) support national aid centers and organizations focused on directly supplying migrants with medical care, protective equipment, food, and other essential goods. The 2020 UN Global Humanitarian Overview estimates that $750 million would be needed for an Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela yet this plan has yet to be properly funded.