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UN says Venezuelans should be considered ‘refugees’

A woman waits with her daughter near the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on May 1, 2019.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By JIM WYSS | Miami Herald | Published: May 21, 2019

BOGOTA, Colombia (Tribune News Service) — As the death toll and hardships for fleeing Venezuelans continue to mount, the United Nations on Tuesday asked the region — once again — to treat the migrants as refugees and refrain from deporting them.

In a statement, the U.N. Refugee Agency said that at least 3.7 million people have left the country in recent years and that “given the worsening political, economic, human rights and humanitarian situation” in Venezuela, the U.N. “now considers that the majority of those fleeing the country are in need of international refugee protection.”

Venezuela’s neighbors have been struggling to keep up with the exodus — one of the largest in the hemisphere’s history — but have, for the most part, received Venezuelans with open arms.

“In practice, Latin America has been very generous to Venezuelans,” said William Spindler, a spokesman for the UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency. “Some eight or nine countries now accept expired Venezuelan passports (as legal ID), there are few other places in the world where that would happen.”

In addition, about 1.4 million Venezuelans in the region have some sort of temporary legal status and 460,000 have applied for asylum.

But the UNHCR said asylum mechanisms in Latin America are being overwhelmed and suggested that states use “group based determinations” to provide refugee status, and not review migrants on a case-by-case basis.

The new guidelines underscore the growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that is forcing people to take desperate journeys in search of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

This week, news emerged that at least 20 people were missing — and presumed dead — after their boat capsized in rough seas as it tried to make the run from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago.

The sole survivor appears to be the ship’s captain. On Saturday, Robert Richards, a U.S. sailor based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, wrote on Facebook that he found “the young man 30 miles offshore of Trinidad in some sporty sea conditions fighting for his life. He’d been in the water for 19 hours.”

Richards said there were no signs of the other passengers. “God bless the lost ones,” he wrote.

Spindler said such incidents underscore the country’s “desperation” and why Venezuelans must be considered refugees.

Aside from those fleeing political persecution “there are many people who are not being persecuted but leaving due to the insecurity, the crime, the blackouts,” he said. “We can’t say these are people who are economic migrants. … In Venezuela they don’t have work, food or access to health care.”

The crisis comes as the country is locked in a political struggle. Washington and more than 50 other nations recognize Juan Guaido, the head of congress, as Venezuela’s legitimate president and are demanding that Nicolas Maduro step down.

Maduro, however, has said he has the right to rule through 2025, and has been hammering the opposition after a brief military uprising on April 30 fizzled.

©2019 Miami Herald

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