By Maeva Chargros
Everyone should be aware of this fact, after two world wars, many genocides and a major crisis triggered by terrorism worldwide: when something happens in one specific country, the entire region surrounding this country is affected; and when a whole region is impacted, the entire world ends up facing consequences of this local event. It is the principle of the well-known butterfly effect. Therefore, how can we not hear the call for help coming from Venezuelans fleeing their country? How can we ignore the growing tensions on the borders between Venezuela and its neighbours?
Seen from Europe, the ongoing crisis in the north-west of the Latin American region reminds of another crisis that Europeans had to face and are still facing – the so-called “refugee crisis”. One might be stunned by how relevant this comparison is, but also puzzled by what it means for our governments and international organisations. After two resolutions failed to pass at the United Nations in the last few days, here is a timely reminder of what is actually happening at the border. Nicolás Javier Pedraza Garcia, currently an exchange student from Universidad Externado de Colombia (Externado University, Bogotá, Colombia) at the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, agreed to give his insight to help us understand the situation from a local perspective.
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela are a very good example of what can be achieved when two independent states decide to cooperate for the better good of their respective economies. Who needs a hard border when both populations speak the same language, work and live together, and benefit from this soft border situation? Until the political crisis hit the Venezuelan economy, “the border was just a line”; now, the border area is described mostly as a “war zone”, or a “conflict zone”. “The border is experiencing a very bad situation both economically and socially; most of Venezuelans who are fleeing are poor, so they stay at the border and are forced to engage in criminal activities such as drug trafficking or prostitution to survive. We, Colombians, try to help as much as we can, but our local government does not have the institutional nor the infrastructure capacity to attend to the situation. Maybe the situation is better in some other cities, but at the border, it is a crisis situation. We have been asking for more financial and human resources from the national government, but so far we are left alone to take care of these people.” Nicolás continues: “I am from Cúcuta, where there was a live aid concert organised recently. The city is the most important conflict zone at the border right now. The city’s authorities are using public schools and even public hospitals now, as I have heard, to help Venezuelans who need a place to sleep, to eat, to take a shower, to get medicines…” Hearing about infrastructures seeing their main purpose switched radically from education to immigration help centres certainly rings a bell. Many European countries, including Greece, Malta, Italy or Sweden, had to use similar strategies at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, a few years ago. Such a shift has a major impact on a country’s economy; Colombia is unfortunately no exception to this rule and while the country is holding on as best as it can for now, the risks are high. “There will be some point when the Colombian government will say ‘we can’t afford this’, our economy will be at risk and we will have to close the border. People in Colombia say that we have our own problems and the local government should not have to attend to this situation as a priority.”
Indeed, the main problem that Colombia is facing currently is not so much the more or less constant flow of immigrants coming from Venezuela, but rather the fact that the country has been left alone in this crisis by all other states that could help. Before the crisis in Venezuela started making it to the headlines of international media, “the efforts from other Latin American countries were really minimum. No country has helped Colombia economically or commercially, we are really alone. Even the United States [of America], probably due to their own political agenda, are not helping with this. There are now diplomatic and political efforts, but the Colombian government needs financial and technical support, we do not have the capacity to deal with such crisis! Our economy, our army, our institutions are not meant to deal with this. We do what we can, but it is not enough! It is difficult to make people and governments understand that for now, the problems are very local, but if the situation continues like this, the whole Latin American region will be destabilised because the problem will spread.” Reports are already indicating that more and more Venezuelans are moving to other parts of Colombia, but also towards Peru, Ecuador, and southern Latin American states.
This feeling of being left alone facing a dramatic situation also has a social impact on the local Colombian populations. “Right now, there is a lot of xenophobia against Venezuelans. There is a very bad image of Maduro, and people think that Venezuelans are trying to invade us and recreate their socialist system in Colombia. There is a lot of social rejection and xenophobia due to misinformation, because of course it is not true.” Meanwhile, Venezuelans have to find ways to survive, resorting to violence and criminal activities. As usual, women and children are put in danger, with young girls (even below 15 years old) offering sexual “services” in exchange for food and women being the targets of sexual and physical assaults, rapes, but also being trapped by trafficking networks. A situation that does not receive as much media attention as it should, according to experts.
When asked to comment on the recent measures taken by the Trump administration, the young Colombian student is hopeful: “The government of the United States is starting to do what is needed. They started freezing [bank] accounts of those who are supporting Maduro, they are imposing financial sanctions on them, but also making it more difficult for the enterprises controlled by these people to trade with American companies. Of course, we would like to get more help, but it is the American way. They did the same with Cuba, and it works, I think, because if you do not have resources, if the military stops supporting the dictatorship, then it will be the breaking point for Maduro.” Unfortunately, the disunited signals coming from the European Union shows, according to Nicolás, the failure of international organisations in comparison with individual states’ efforts. Indeed, be it the EU or the UN, both have failed so far to take significant steps towards solving the Venezuelan crisis, while individual states such as the USA, Russia or China are either sending humanitarian aid, or influencing the developments through sanctions or veto votes.
As Nicolás rightly points out: “Of course we want to believe in international organisations, we want to believe that there will be an international power solving the problem. But we have seen Rwanda, we have seen other African crises. When an international organisation comes up with a solution, it is usually a bad one. We do not think that others will solve our problems, but we would like to get some help to attend to the crisis.”
The question remains: how do we solve such a crisis without risking military intervention which would most probably turn out to be the worst option?
“I think the topic of a possible military intervention was created by Maduro, all by himself. I do not think the United States are seriously considering this option. It is something that Maduro is saying just to have a common enemy that everyone should fight and unite against. This is how dictatorships work, they want everyone to be against an external enemy. It might help him internally, but it will not affect the situation outside Venezuela. It is like calling Colombia a ‘fascist country’, it might even backfire against him, because it is ridiculous and absolutely not true. The problem will not be solved by just giving food and medicine to the people right now. But the people should be the priority. Venezuela will always be here, it will not disappear. Maduro will fall, probably, at some point, but for this we need a transition, and it is the people who will work for this transition. We need to take care of them, it is urgent. There is a social crisis, a cultural crisis, an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis. This must be tackled right now. The situation with Maduro should be handled, but in the long-term. What is important right now is the Venezuelan people.”
And Colombia is left alone by all its allies and partners to face this part of the crisis: the human part, which should always prevail over all other aspects.
How many crises will we need to finally listen to the UNHCR?
A scale-up of humanitarian assistance, as well as increased support to socio-economic inclusion mechanisms, is urgently required to complement government efforts and to ensure communities continue to accept refugees and migrants in a safe and welcoming environment. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, developed with some 95 partners, aims to prioritize the needs of over 2.2 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela as well as an estimated half a million host community members.
As part of this Plan, UNHCR requires an initial US$134 million in 2019 to continue responding to the most urgent needs of refugees and migrants from Venezuela in 16 host countries most affected by this situation.
We failed to recognise the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. Will we fail also to understand that Venezuelans must be granted the status of refugees, and therefore host countries must be provided with adequate financial, human, and humanitarian resources? This is not a political game anymore: human lives are at stake, and a region that has been struggling for decades to reach economic, social and political stability risks being dangerously destabilised again in the near future if nothing is done – with consequences that will undoubtedly reach our European shores. Concerts, threats of armed conflict and failed resolutions at the United Nations are not enough anymore.
 All quotes given without a clear source in this article come from this interview conducted on February 26, 2019.
 Last November (2018), reports mentioned up to 3 million Venezuelans have fled their country.
Featured picture credit: photo of Cúcuta, by Nicolás Javier Pedraza Garcia (all rights reserved; published with his authorisation).
The Euroculturer Magazine would like to thank Nicolás Javier Pedraza Garcia for the interview and all the insights provided by him for this article.