During a speech at the 2019-2020 National Culture Prize award ceremony, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro took a moment to speak about the U.S. presidential inauguration and his hopes for better U.S.-Venezuela relations with President Joe Biden.
Later in the speech, Maduro spoke of 600,000 Venezuelans having fled the country since 2017, saying they “went searching for a life opportunity, economic opportunity.”
He added: “Many were misled by social media, believing they would arrive and be set. They would have an apartment, a car, a salary, vacation. And most of them, according to the statistical study we have, have come back – almost 300,000 Venezuelans have returned through the plan Return to Homeland.”
Maduro’s claims are misleading; he grossly undercounts the exodus from Venezuela.
Under Maduro, who narrowly won Venezuela’s presidency after Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013, the country has fallen deeper into despair. His presidential win was quickly followed by the collapse of global oil prices in 2014, which sent Venezuela’s economy into a free fall.
The collapse sparked mass protests, which were met with force. An ensuing humanitarian, economic and political crisis led to a massive exodus of Venezuelans who fled to countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Spain and the United States.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that 5.4 million Venezuelans have left in the past six years. From 2014- 2019, nearly 800,000 Venezuelan asylum claims were lodged globally, 75 percent of them in 2018-2019.
These numbers, which are based on data from host governments, represent “an 8,000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide since 2014,” according to the UNHCR.
Maduro’s estimates are only 11 percent of the UNHCR and IOM’s total estimates. The 600,000 figure he cites is almost equal to the asylum claims in 2018 and 2019 alone. And as the UNHCR and IOM’s joint database notes, the total figure of 5.4 million is likely an undercount.
The estimate “represents the sum of Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers … [it] may include a degree of estimation, as per each government’s statistical data processing methodology. As numerous government sources do not account for Venezuelans without a regular status, the total number of Venezuelans is likely to be higher.”
Returning to Venezuela
President Maduro created the “Return to Homeland” (Vuelta a la Patria) program in 2018 to help Venezuelans abroad willingly return home. By late November 2018, a little more than 9,800 Venezuelans had repatriated through the program, according to Venezuela’s foreign relations ministry.
An article posted in October 2020 on the website of TeleSUR, a Venezuelan state-sponsored television network, claimed that “more than 200,000 Venezuelans repatriated in recent months.” It has been widely reported that thousands of Venezuelan nationals have returned home during the COVID-19 pandemic because of financial hardships and instability caused by the virus.
According to news reports, those returning to Venezuela were often mistreated or stopped at their country’s border. Maduro himself has criticized returnees, even calling them “bioterrorists.” The New York Times reported that they have been met by security forces and held in overcrowded quarantine centers" under military guard for weeks or months for coronavirus tests or treatment with unproven medications.” A nurse who spent 70 days in centers told the newspaper “[guards] told us we’re contaminated, that we’re guilty of infecting the country.”
Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health described “overcrowded and unsanitary quarantine centers for the people returning, with little access to food, water, or medical care.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has led thousands of Venezuelans to return home, it has also sparked further emigration from the country. NBC News reported in October that Colombian immigration officials were expecting 200,000 Venezuelans to seek entry into the country in the following months. Venezuelans were using dangerous and illegal pathways to get into Colombia – taking dirt roads which “are controlled by violent drug trafficking groups and rebel organizations like the National Liberation Army,” NBC wrote.
While many Venezuelans, as Maduro said, do face hardships when they emigrate to a new country, many feel it is worth it. As the Associated Press reported in October, even the opportunity to earn less-than-minimum wage in Columbia is a draw for many Venezuelans. “I can’t allow my daughter to be born in a place where she might have to go to bed hungry,” Eleazar Hernandez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan migrant who went to the Colombian city of Medellin with his pregnant wife, told the news agency.
The UNHCR quoted a Venezuelan refugee it called Rosalba (she used a pseudonym for security reasons) as saying she left Venezuela for Colombia in 2017 but had to return home during the pandemic as the coronavirus crisis made it impossible for her to make ends meet and led to her imminent eviction. However, once back in Venezuela, she found herself in a worse situation. “When I left Venezuela, it was unlivable … when I returned, it was worse,” she told the U.N. agency. After a month back home, she fled to Colombia again.