LIMA, Peru (AP) — When Johan Álvarez was unable to provide more than one meal a day for his young family he knew it was time to leave Venezuela.
With his wife and infant son, the 25-year-old embarked on a lengthy journey by bus through three nations to reach Peru earlier this year.
Now they are among a growing swell of Venezuelans asking to be recognized as refugees.
A United Nations report released Wednesday finds that Venezuelans represent the largest group worldwide filing new asylum claims. Those fleeing the troubled South American nation made more than one in five of all asylum requests in 2018, higher than the number of claims made by people escaping Afghanistan and Syria.
But Venezuela is not in the midst of war and many foreign governments are reluctant to recognize the migrants as refugees.
On a recent overcast day in Peru’s capital, Álvarez filed into a line with about a hundred other Venezuelan arrivals filing for asylum, hoping his family’s tale of hunger back home would be enough to earn them refugee status.
“It’s not a war of arms,” he said. “But it is a war of survival.”
As Venezuela’s crisis drags on, the number fleeing is rising by alarming numbers. The United Nations estimates there are now 4 million Venezuelans living abroad — a quarter of whom have fled since November. The Organization of American States estimates the number could reach 7.5 million by the end of 2020.
The widely used definition of refugee is someone who has fled his or her homeland because of persecution, war or violence. Asylum claimants typically have to show that they cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group.
But a more encompassing definition in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration includes people fleeing hunger and poverty resulting from the breakdown of rule of law — conditions which a much wider group of Venezuelans are experiencing.
To date, more than 460,000 Venezuelans have sought asylum, including nearly 350,000 in 2018 alone, according to the U.N. A large number of those claims are being filed in Peru, where some 800,000 Venezuelans now reside.
Last year, Peru received 192,500 claims — an astoundingly high number that has created a backlog. Just over 1,000 Venezuelans have gotten their asylum requests approved. Worldwide, only about 21,000 Venezuelans have been recognized as refugees to date.
The U.N. report released Wednesday notes the Venezuela migration crisis has increasingly taken on the “characteristics of a refugee situation” and says it is clear that international protection considerations “are applicable to the majority of Venezuelans.” Such protections could spare them from deportation.
“People fleeing Venezuela are doing so in increasingly complex circumstances,” said Federico Agusti, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Peru. “It’s not just a humanitarian crisis. The reason they had to leave is because their life was in danger.”
David Smolansky, a Venezuela opposition leader who himself escaped in a journey through the jungle of Brazil, is now the coordinator of a migrant working group led by the Washington-based Organization of American States. He has been traveling throughout the Americas encouraging nations to apply the Cartagena Declaration, which was signed by several of the Latin American nations where Venezuelans are now arriving.
“If you give them refugee status, it will guarantee protection,” he said. “I think it will create a commitment from the international community to cooperate more.”
Accepting a broader definition of who constitutes a refugee is particularly relevant in Colombia, where large numbers of Venezuelans have fled.
Despite taking in an estimated 1.3 million Venezuelans, neighboring Colombia has received just 2,729 asylum claims, according to U.N. data. Many migrants are discouraged from applying because the process can take as long as two or three years. Others have been told only strict cases of political persecution or desertion will be acknowledged.
Gabriel Valles is one of those hoping his seemingly shoo-in case in Venezuela’s neighboring country will be accepted.
The 32-year-old systems engineer and opposition activist spent more than two years in a Venezuelan high-security detention center run by the government’s feared intelligence agency that is located five levels underground and known as “The Tomb.”
There were no windows and the lights were almost always kept on, he recalled.
The only way he could tell if it might be day or night was by the hum of a metro line that ran nearby. If trains were passing by more frequently, he reasoned, it must be daytime.
“I always asked myself if the people who took the Caracas metro had any idea that below them exists a place where people are jailed,” he said.
He was transferred to another jail before being released after nearly four years behind bars, and he later applied for asylum in Colombia.
Valles currently has permission to work and live in the country for 90 days. Even though it can be repeatedly renewed, he said companies have been reluctant to hire him, not having any guarantee that he will have legal status for more than three months.
Many of his compatriots are in even more dire straits: Over a third of Venezuelans in Colombia have no legal status, which often forces them to take low-paying and even abusive jobs on the black market.
“Venezuelans in Colombia should be treated as refugees,” he said. “For many reasons other than whether or not there is an armed conflict.”
Several nations, including Colombia, continue to forcibly remove migrants despite the dangers they might face back home, while other countries are confronting a myriad of additional issues.
The United States has received some 81,800 asylum requests from Venezuelans and President Donald Trump recently said his administration is considering granting legal temporary protective status to thousands of Venezuelans who have fled.
But Niels Frenzen, a law professor and director of the University of South California’s immigration clinic, said the TPS push faces an uphill battle because of the political conundrum it creates for Trump and his tough-on-immigration stance.
“You have these opposing political desires, at least in the current U.S. government,” he said.
In Peru, the number of asylum applications is soaring partly because it has become easier to make requests. At the border, Venezuelans can submit their documents for refugee status, which is one of the only ways they can enter after the implementation of new requirements that made it impossible to cross without a passport.
For Álvarez, applying for such status was his best option.
He said his wages working at a liquor store in Venezuela only provided his family with enough money to eat once a day in the afternoon. When his newborn son became anemic and malnourished, they decided to flee.
“I felt like my stomach was consuming itself,” he said.
A relative living abroad sent him $450 for the lengthy journey to Lima, where he now works at a candle factory. Though he earns just $329 a month, he said his family eats three times a day.
Returning to Venezuela, he said, would be the equivalent of returning to a nation at war.
“The war is with those who sell food, with the hospitals, with the government,” he said. “I want refugee status because I’m looking for a future for my son.”
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