Syrian and Venezuelan refugees: two faces of the same crisis
Over the past several years, roughly seven million Syrians and a slightly smaller number of Venezuelans have left their countries, fleeing either repression and war or political crisis and economic collapse. Both have mostly stayed in neighbouring countries, experiencing harsh living conditions and challenges to job inclusion and social integration. But differences in the way they have been treated are even more revealing than the similarities of their struggles. While diffuse social xenophobia has been present everywhere, increasing further in times of crisis, only Syrians have been targeted by top-down xenophobia purposefully mobilised for political gain. Political choices matter: decision-makers must now make the right choice and embrace rights-based coordinated approaches to migration, making the promise of the Refugee Convention a lived reality for all displaced people.
Millions of Syrians who found refuge in Turkey and Lebanon now risk being forced home, where they’re likely to face horrific human rights abuses. Both countries, the two largest recipients of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, have recently unveiled large-scale deportation schemes, even though the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Syria has made clear the country is not a safe place to return to.
Fleeing devastating conflict and persecution by the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrians are the world’s largest refugee population. By mid-2022, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counted almost seven million of them.
Halfway across the world, another major flow of refugees poses a significant test for host countries. In recent years, between six and seven million Venezuelans have fled their country’s political crisis, economic collapse and descent into authoritarianism. An estimated 20 per cent of Venezuela’s population, they make up the world’s second-largest group of internationally displaced people, after Syrians.
Syrians and Venezuelans are largely staying in countries that neighbour their own, and while there are key differences between their situations, they also share some common challenges. Looking to overcome these, many have sought newer destinations, bringing fresh perils.
Syrians in Turkey and Lebanon
Under its 2016 Refugee Agreement with the European Union (EU), Turkey hosts more than four million refugees, over 3.7 million of them from neighbouring Syria. But the Turkish government’s decision to receive them was never just a humanitarian act: it was incentivised by EU funding and associated willingness to turn a blind eye to president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on domestic dissent.
Although Turkey’s laws provide for asylum and access to basic rights for refugees, the government has always emphasised the temporary status of refugees. International human rights organisations have warned about the potential for deportation for years.
When an economic crisis hit in 2021, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party faced a rare threat to its longstanding power. With presidential and parliamentary elections due in June 2023, Erdoğan fell back on an anti-migrant narrative, blaming refugees for just about anything, from rising unemployment to increasing insecurity. This rhetoric resonated with the public, fuelling a wave of xenophobia that only deepened as the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan heralded a fresh wave of newcomers.
The rhetoric soon turned into policy. Early this year, the government implemented a quota scheme that banned any more foreign residents and refugees from settling in 16 of its 81 provinces. In May Erdoğan set in motion his plan to force a million refugees back to a so-called ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria. Security officials started arresting people in their homes and workplaces and on the streets, pushing them across the Turkey-Syria border at gunpoint.
Hate words turned into hate crimes, with physical attacks against refugees increasing. In September, Fares Elali, a Syrian teenager, was stabbed to death at his workplace. Syrian-owned businesses and refugees have been attacked in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Istanbul, its largest city. But in a context where the expression of dissent is severely restricted and civil society faces severe obstacles, migrants’ rights organisations, and particularly those formed by Syrians, are at high risk of retaliation for voicing their concerns.
Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular.
Similar anti-migrant narratives have been mobilised in Lebanon, Syria’s southwestern neighbour and home to over a million Syrian refuges – and also the scene of a protracted political and economic crisis. Lebanon was already experiencing political deadlock and economic strife for nationals and foreigners alike before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made things even worse, causing a food and fuel crisis, leaving many struggling to access the basics.
Syrian refugees have had it particularly hard. Most lack legal resident status since the Lebanese government stopped allowing the UNHCR to register them in 2015. As a result, 90 per cent live in extreme poverty and are vulnerable to detention and deportation.
Unable to get to grips with a deepening failure of governance and address the real problem of systemic corruption, Lebanese officials have also taken the easy way out, blaming Syrian refugees. In August, the Caretaker Minister of the Displaced, Issam Charafeddine, said that hosting refugees had cost the country almost US$33 billion, making them ‘a huge burden on the Lebanese economy’. The official narrative was replicated and amplified on social media, with hashtags such as ‘our land is not for displaced Syrians’ and ‘no Syrians in Lebanon’. The government then launched a ‘repatriation’ programme for 15,000 Syrians, arguing the war was over and Syria was now safe for them to return to.
As in Turkey, hate speech enabled violence. In July, a Syrian boy carrying bread was attacked by a group in Beirut. This was far from the first incident. In the midst of the pandemic, 75 families living in a camp were made homeless when their tents and belongings were set alight. And during Syria’s 2021 election, violent groups beat up Syrians headed to their country’s embassy to vote.
Voices from the frontline
Serene Dardari is the Middle East Regional Communications Manager and Mahmoud Abdullah is the Lebanon Bekaa Area Manager of American Near East Refugee Aid, a US-registered civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to helping refugees and others hurt by conflicts in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.
Lebanon is already extremely segregated politically and religiously and has an extremely toxic and traumatic relationship with Syria. The presence of a large, mostly Sunni Muslim, Syrian community only adds to the political tension, to the point that violent clashes could erupt any time.
With Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, the situation is hard for everyone, both locals and refugees. But on top of struggling economically, refugees are also facing growing xenophobia. Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular. When the Lebanese currency and politics were more stable, someone on an average salary could feed a whole middle-class family, but now they can barely get some petrol for their car. The idea that Syrian refugees are taking everything from Lebanese people is widespread, and reactions are becoming increasingly hostile and violent. When people see international funding going towards Syrian refugees, they get enraged.
Many people think refugees are taking away potential aid that should go to Lebanese people. So on top of the livelihood challenges, refugees also face stigma, negativity and hostility, all of which affects their psyches. This isn’t happening just in Lebanon. Turkey is another example of this. The scenario is the same throughout the region: Syrian refugees are being blamed for everything.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Serene and Mahmoud. Read the full interview here.
Colombians in Venezuela
The challenges faced by Venezuelan migrants and refugees are similar in some respects, but quite different in others. Since 2014, about seven million people have fled political repression and economic collapse in Venezuela. As with Syrians, most Venezuelans have moved into neighbouring countries. Around six million have remained in Latin America, with Colombia receiving by far the most: the latest World Migration Report, based on 2020 data, counted more than 1.7 million, while the Colombian migration agency currently places the total closer to 2.5 million.
While Lebanon historically has a strained relationship with Syria – not least because of the Syrian army’s involvement in Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war – the ties between Colombia and Venezuela are rather different. Venezuela has traditionally been a destination country for migrants, including political exiles. Only recently did the direction of the flow change and Venezuela became a net source of migrants and refugees.
It’s believed that in the 1980s and 1990s around five million people of Colombian origin lived in Venezuela. Migration was particularly intense during the oil boom of the 1970s, which significantly increased Venezuela’s per capita income and overall living standards. For decades, Colombia’s armed conflict pushed people out and Venezuela’s job opportunities and public healthcare, education and social welfare pulled them in.
It wasn’t just Colombians. As one of the few countries in the region that didn’t experience military rule in the 1960s and 1970s, Venezuela took in thousands of exiles fleeing murderous dictatorships in countries such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
This helps explain why the reception Venezuelans have found has been in contrast to the hostility accorded to Syrians, even in contexts constrained by very limited resources. According to a 2021 report from the Organization of American States, funding for Venezuelan migration was about a tenth of that available for Syrians: per capita aid to Venezuelan migrants averaged US$480, compared to US$5,000 for Syrians.
As most Venezuelans have remained in Latin American countries facing their own problems of poverty and inequality and lacking adequate international support, they predictably face significant barriers, all of which can be seen in Colombia. It’s difficult for them to find employment, and because of their irregular status, people have often had to accept the lowest-paid jobs in the worst conditions. People face obstacles in accessing housing, healthcare, education and social benefits. They have often settled in the poorest areas, where resources are already under strain.
But they still haven’t encountered the levels of xenophobia experienced by their Syrian peers. They have certainly faced discrimination, but what’s made the difference in Colombia is the absence of top-down xenophobia mobilised for political gain.
Venezuelan migration wasn’t one of the key issues in the May 2022 presidential election campaign. All candidates made proposals in relation to it, ranging from humanitarian aid and codifying the rights of migrants to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela to stabilise the situation in the hope that one day Venezuelans can return. But no one proposed anything remotely resembling a mass expulsion programme, and there was no public appetite that could make this a politically appealing option. The underlying logic of solidarity seems to remain in place.
Progress and challenges in Colombia
In 2021 the Colombian government introduced the Temporary Protection Status for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPMV). It established a registration process to grant Venezuelan migrants a permit allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years and enabling them to access work and the social security, education, healthcare and financial systems, validate their professional diplomas and leave and re-enter Colombia at will.
The ETPMV was enacted by decree in March 2021, in a highly conflictive context. In late April, mass protests erupted, triggered by new proposed taxes, that acted as a catalyst for growing social unrest. They were met with lethal force that prompted even more protests. Earlier in the year, as COVID-19 infections raged, then-president Iván Duque announced that irregular migrants wouldn’t be vaccinated and measures would be taken to prevent large numbers of Venezuelans crossing the border to get the vaccine. The announcement was criticised both domestically and internationally, including by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The introduction of the ETPMV may have been a response to this criticism as well as an attempt to isolate Venezuela’s leftist government and draw attention to its human rights violations. But regardless of its motivations, the ETPMV offered respite to Venezuelans living in Colombia. The policy has so far been maintained by leftist President Gustavo Petro, inaugurated in August 2022. At the same time Petro has sought to rebuild bilateral relations with Venezuela: in September he reopened Colombia’s borders and air routes to enable commercial exchange. No further initiatives to integrate Venezuelans in Colombia have been put forward beyond the ETPMV.
There have been challenges in the implementation of the ETPMV. The registration process has moved more slowly than expected: many people have been unable to fulfil its requirements, and over a million who have proved their eligibility still haven’t received their temporary permits. This means millions of Venezuelans continue to face the extreme hardship associated with irregular migration status.
Half of jobs in Colombia are in informal labour, and this is where many Venezuelans end up, particularly if their migration situation hasn’t been regularised. This makes them more vulnerable to labour abuse, sexual exploitation and recruitment by criminal gangs and illegal businesses. This in turn plays into a narrative of foreign criminality that feeds xenophobia, which as everywhere tends to increase in times of crisis.
Voices from the frontline
Jessica Corredor Villamil is the director of and Lina Arroyave a researcher in the international team of Dejusticia, a centre for legal and social studies based in Bogotá, Colombia.
According to data from Migración Colombia, as of November 2022 about 2.5 million people have entered their data in the Single Registry for Venezuelan Migrants and 1.6 million permits have been approved.
This gap is worrying because lack of regular migration status imposes barriers to accessing fundamental rights and hinders the socio-economic integration of migrants.
In a recent report we identified multiple barriers to accessing and remaining in the formal labour market, as well as for setting up a business.
The main legal barrier is lack of regular migration status. The thousands of people who continue to enter Colombia through informal border crossings are denied access to temporary protected status. This has an impact on both formalising their employment and access to entrepreneurship support funds, particularly from the state, but also from the private sector. A majority of self-employed migrant workers work in the informal sector.
There are also social and cultural factors that can affect the employment situation. Negative perceptions of the Venezuelan migrant population affect recruitment processes. Xenophobia and discrimination deepen in situations of insecurity, although there is no evidence of links between migration and increased crime.
As a result, to earn an income many migrants are forced into precarious jobs and exploitative working conditions, including extremely long working hours, sub-minimum wages, mistreatment and changes in agreed working conditions.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Jessica and Lina. Read the full interview here.
Tensions in Latin America
Social tensions have arisen in other Latin American countries as well. Recent years have seen anti-migrant protests and attacks in Chile and Peru, both of which have sizeable Venezuelan populations.
In Chile, a group of truckers blocked access to the capital of the Tarapacá region and thousands of people took to the streets in January 2022 to protest about insecurity after four Venezuelans attacked a police officer, an incident that was amplified on social media. During the protests, people chanted xenophobic slogans and destroyed migrant camps. In October, when a violent group that included foreigners assaulted police officers in the city of Puerto Montt, left-wing President Gabriel Boric reacted by announcing that those responsible would be expelled from the country.
Migration had turned into an economic and security issue under former centre-right President Sebastián Piñera. Through the 2021 Migration Law and two previous executive decrees, he severely increased visa requirements and made it easier to expel illegal migrants. In 2021, several expulsion cases were reported, mostly against Venezuelans who were unable to appeal against the decision or access legal assistance.
Boric tried to promote a coordinated regional response with a quota mechanism to distribute the migrant population more evenly among Latin American countries, but the proposal didn’t meet with a positive reception. After this diplomatic failure and faced with growing pressure to address migration, Chile’s government recently announced changes to the Migration Law to facilitate the expulsion of undocumented migrants.
Starting in 2017, when the composition of Venezuelan migration changed to include high numbers of people from vulnerable groups, numerous CSOs emerged to provide humanitarian aid, addressing urgent needs of new arrivals such as food, clothing and healthcare, and helping them access essential services, jobs and other opportunities. Many organisations were formed by Venezuelans who had left their country earlier.
CSOs have become an important pillar in work with the migrant population, because we are on the ground and we know the problems migrants have.
During the pandemic, migrants with irregular status struggled to access vaccinations and other healthcare services in Colombia. A Colombian CSO, Dejusticia, took the matter to the Constitutional Court, which in 2021 ruled that all people, regardless of their migration status, were to be included in the national COVID-19 vaccination plan.
In Mexico, when pandemic lockdown policies were imposed, many Venezuelans at the US border were stuck with no government support. Local organisations provided medical assistance and refuge during this critical moment.
Chilean CSOs have constantly denounced the government’s plans to deport migrants and, alongside international civil society partners, tried to prevent the approval of the 2021 Migration Law.
Voices from the frontline
Carmen Aida Faria is the director of Fundación Manitas Amarillas (Little Yellow Hands Foundation), a Colombian CSO formed in 2018 to provide humanitarian assistance, access to health services and counselling to Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
Since the last big wave of migration in 2017, many CSOs have emerged. It was the migrant community itself that first began to get together to help other migrants. CSOs have become an important pillar in work with the migrant population, because we are on the ground and we know the problems migrants have.
Currently, many CSOs are working together in coordination with the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá and promoting several joint initiatives. We have launched public campaigns and signed a symbolic pact to promote integration, because Venezuelan migrants in Colombia continue to suffer from xenophobia and discrimination as a result of their poverty. We have asked the media to stop mentioning the nationality of crime perpetrators, because they only do so when the person involved is a foreigner, thus overstating the problem and contributing to discrimination against Venezuelans.
We are also participating, in collaboration with the Colombian government and international cooperation agencies, in the first ‘Entregatón’, a massive permit delivery operation aimed at distributing 40,000 permits in five days. Migración Colombia has sent messages via mobile phone to migrants whose documents are ready, notifying them of the date and place where they can pick them up.
People who have already received their permits are also offered vaccination services, access to healthcare providers, registration with the social assistance system, legal support and information on various other issues, from the transportation system to school access to programmes targeted at migrant women.
There is so much work and CSOs are contributing enormously. The government and international cooperation agencies should take us into account not only as sources of diagnoses of migration issues, but also as partners when it comes to jointly implementing public policies arising from those diagnoses.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Carmen. Read the full interview here.
While most Syrian and Venezuelan migrants remain in neighbouring countries and others in their regions, there are also many trying to head further. But tightening restrictions are forcing them to take more dangerous routes to reach their desired destinations, often the EU for Syrians and the USA for Venezuelans.
Chile is far from the only country to have increased restrictions for Venezuelans. In 2022, Belize, Costa Rica and Mexico all imposed tougher visa requirements – not least due to US pressure to prevent migrants gathering on its southern border. Movement through Mexico and Central America has become more challenging as a result.
In October, the US government announced a limited humanitarian permit for Venezuelans who enter the country by plane and have a financial sponsor. But everyone else will continue to be dealt with by means of Title 42, a part of the 1944 Public Health Service Act aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases, rarely used before the Trump administration revived it to prevent migrants entering the USA during the pandemic. Before they started arriving in numbers at the border in 2021, Venezuelans had been eligible for temporary status under a federal policy that allowed victims of disasters to work in the USA.
As well as maintaining Title 42, President Biden also continued with his predecessor’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, under which asylum-seekers are returned to Mexico until their cases are resolved by the US immigration court system.
Predictably, more Venezuelans are now taking the dangerous routes long used by Central American migrants to reach the USA. Thousands are risking their lives trying to cross Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap, a forest area home to paramilitary forces and organised criminal gangs. In the first eight months of 2022, the number of Venezuelans arriving in Panama increased by over 2,400 per cent, surpassing the numbers of Cubans and Haitians.
Syrians are also risking danger to reach Europe, with decisions driven by increasing hostility in Lebanon and Turkey and the growing risk of being deported to Syria. Across Turkey’s land border, Greek security officers engage in violent and illegal pushbacks of refugees. Erdoğan has used threats of allowing a mass crossing of the border as a means of extracting resources from the EU.
Left with no other route, many are taking to sea. The result is often tragedy: more than 29,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
In September, 94 people died after a Europe-bound boat that left Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast. That same month, a fishing boat carrying 60 people towards Italy remained at sea for a week without food or water. One of the passengers, a four-year-old girl, died of thirst before any help came.
The governments of Cyprus, Italy and Malta have a policy of not providing assistance to ships carrying migrants and criminalise those who do so. In 2019, Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League political party and then the Interior Minister, blocked a rescue ship carrying 147 migrants that it had picked up at sea from docking in an Italian port. The vessel was forced to anchor off the island of Lampedusa for 20 days, as conditions on board deteriorated.
After Salvini and his party were removed from the ruling coalition in 2020, sea rescues became easier. But things have changed again since Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party came to power following the September 2022 election.
In November 2022, Italian authorities stopped 35 asylum seekers rescued by a German organisation disembarking at the port of Catania, claiming they did not qualify for asylum, even though most were escaping torture and human rights violations in Libya. They also refused to allow a French charity vessel carrying 234 asylum seekers to dock at one of its ports, sparking a diplomatic row with France.
🆘 from #Malta Search and Rescue zone!— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) September 4, 2022
~60 people in distress who left from #Lebanon 10 days ago need urgent assistance! The boat is leaking, no food or water is left. They say a container ship is following them but so far no help arrived. They need rescue, not observers! pic.twitter.com/5iqOaoGg6W
The 1951 Refugee Convention, which has been ratified by all the states hosting Syrians and Venezuelans, apart from Lebanon, defines states’ obligations to protect refugees on their territory and afford all refugees exactly the same rights.
But in practice, not all refugees are given the consideration required by international law. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fleeing Ukrainians were treated as everyone should be. Dealing with almost eight million Ukrainians who fled their country in a matter of months was no easy task: the fact that it was done readily and efficiently by EU states showed that the harsh treatment given to Syrians and other non-white, non-Christian migrants is not an inevitability but a political choice. It shows that other options are available.
The differences in the treatment of the two major refugee flows of the last decade, Syrians and Venezuelans, illustrate the importance of political choices. While large numbers of Venezuelan migrants settled in countries with economic and social contexts as difficult or even more so than those hosting Syrians – and which received far smaller amounts of aid – some governments made a conscious choice to exploit the issue of migrants for political gain, and others chose not to.
Unfortunately, too many governments around the world continue to take the easier road, including those with the resources to make a difference. Some use migrants and refugees as bargaining chips to get funding and other concessions from rich countries wanting to keep them far from their borders. Global north states have shown they’re prepared to look the other way while the tyrants they fund violate the rights of nationals and foreigners alike. They ignore flows of refugees in more distant regions, unless there’s a risk they will get close to their borders. They outsource border control, letting others do the dirty work. They instrumentalise migrants and refugees in domestic politics and show sensitivity only towards those who resemble them, and only if it plays well with the domestic public. They refuse to collaborate to tackle an issue that by its very definition transcends borders.
Global policies on migration are based on denial. Last year over 83 million people were forced to flee their homes due to violence, conflict, poverty and persecution. More will come, including migration flows driven by climate change. But the response in the main has been to make migration policies more restrictive, denying people legal paths and forcing them to take ever more dangerous routes.
Any change should start with the understanding that in a world of migration, migrants and refugees present states and societies with the ultimate test of our shared humanity. That test must be faced regardless of where migrants come from – whether they be Syrians, Ukrainians or Venezuelans.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The governments of Lebanon and Turkey must stop arbitrary deportations of Syrians and guarantee to respect the rights of refugees living in their countries.
The governments of Chile, Mexico other Latin American countries should review their migration policies to improve protection of migrants and refugees and offer pathways for integration.
The EU and the USA must open legal routes for migration and abide by their international commitments to offer protection to refugees.
Cover photo by Lukas Barth/Reuters via Getty Images