May 3, 2018 - Politics & Policy

The new global migrant crisis is in the Americas

Faced with hyperinflation, crippling food and medicine shortages, limited electricity and an oppressive dictatorship, around 5,000 Venezuelans a day are fleeing to surrounding countries.

Data: International Organization for Migration; Note: USA change is from 2015 to 2016; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: International Organization for Migration; Note: USA change is from 2015 to 2016; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Big picture: This is the new global migration crisis, with an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans having left the country between 2014 and 2017 — and even that estimate may fall short of the true number. “The situation in Venezuela keeps sinking further and further, and the expectation is that the numbers will absolutely increase," Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center's Latin American program, told Axios.

Why it matters: The Syrian refugee crisis overwhelmed neighbors, divided Europe and reverberated around the globe. While the exodus from Venezuela is, as yet, smaller (6 million people have fled Syria), the pace is fairly similar, and it's already having significant economic, political and social impacts around the Americas.

How we got here

Tomas Paez, a Venezuelan sociologist who has been researching the diaspora, traces the mass emigration of Venezuelans back to 1999 when Hugo Chavez came to power, he told Axios. But it has grown exponentially during the current crisis.

  • Historically, Venezuela has opened its arms to fleeing Latin Americans from other nations, Arnson says. "In the beginning there was a lot of solidarity," in countries like Colombia, she says, "but that has worn thin, particularly in the cities that have been overwhelmed in border areas," she says.


  • Immigration officials estimate 30,000 Venezuelans cross the Simón Bolivar Bridge every day, according to the New York Times. Some buy food to bring home, while others plan to start over across the border.
  • 1,869 Venezuelans have been arrested for crimes in Colombia, the Times reports, which has shifted public sentiment.
  • The crisis has loomed over this month's presidential election, with right-wing front-runner Ivan Duque proposing quotas for Venezuelan immigrants, to ensure Colombia doesn't have to bear the brunt of the crisis. He has insisted, however, that Venezuelans be given the humanitarian aide they need.


  • Around 40,000 Venezuelans have fled to Boa Vista, a border city between Brazil and Venezuela. Immigrants now account for more than 10% of the city's population, according to local reporting.
  • "Fears of a backlash intensified in February when an arsonist set fire to two Boa Vista houses filled with Venezuelan immigrants," per the AP. The governor of the Roraima border state "declared a state of emergency to free up funds for overwhelmed public hospitals, where health officials estimate that 8 in 10 patients are Venezuelan."
  • Brazil has generous immigration policies toward Venezuela, and introduced a special two-year visa specifically for Venezuelans last year. Brazil also has a presidential election this year, but so long as the crisis "remains isolated to one part of a very large country," Roberta Braga of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Center says, it won't be as central an issue as it is in Colombia.


  • Peru also launched a generous temporary status program for Venezuelans in February of 2017, which helped 25,500 Venezuelans in the first year, according to the Migration Office of Peru.
  • Not all Peruvians have been welcoming, though, especially as the crisis has dragged on. In March, "a large poster was hung on a bridge in Lima, along with many smaller ones around the city, with the words ‘#PeruSinVenezolanos Basta Ya!,’ which translates in English to “Peru without Venezuelans, Enough!," according to Peru Reports.


  • Chile has seen a dramatic uptick in immigrants over the past couple years — from 416,00o to 1 million between 2014 and 2017, according to the Miami Herald, and has seen the largest percentage increase of Venezuelan residents of any country.
  • "The abrupt rise in immigration has come as a shock to a country that had no empire and is a long way from the world’s main trouble spots," per the Economist.
  • Newly-elected president Sebastian Piñera has begun establishing new requirements for immigrants, including a passport requirement for arrivals. The economy is so bad in Venezuela that the government is struggling just to obtain paper for passports, according to Paez.

The United States

  • Between 2014 and 2017, the U.S. received more asylum applications from Venezuelans than any other country did. But in 2016, only 355 of the 18,312 Venezuelans who applied were granted asylum in the U.S.
  • There were 45,000 more Venezuelans in the U.S. in 2016 compared to the previous year, per the UN, with Florida in particular seeing thousands of arrivals.


  • In Panama, "the sympathy that greeted early arrivals from Venezuela, many wealthy professionals, is giving way to fear and resentment of the poor and desperate. It is evinced by outbreaks of nationalistic insults, harassment and even violence," per Bloomberg.
  • Trinidad and Tobago has been criticized by the UN for deporting 82 Venezuelans, although government officials have claimed they left voluntarily.

Go deeper: Venezuela's economic collapse causing unimaginable human suffering.

Go deeper