CIVICUS speaks with Ana María Diez, president of Coalition for Venezuela, about the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants trying to reach the USA by land.
Coalition for Venezuela is a network of Venezuelan civil society organisations that promote and defend human rights, freedoms and democratic values, provide humanitarian assistance inside and outside Venezuela and promote the development of host countries of Venezuelan citizens.
What effects have recent changes in US immigration policy had on Venezuelan migration?
Changes in US migration policy have not had substantial positive effects. People are still placing their bets on going north and coyotes continue to take advantage of the people they smuggle across borders.
The new US policy has not been very successful in terms of stemming the tide of migration. There has been no effective communication to explain to migrants how humanitarian parole works. This is a temporary stay permit provided to Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan nationals for urgent humanitarian or public benefit reasons, and offers a legal way to stay in the USA for at least one year without a visa.
Humanitarian parole has a number of strict requirements: one must be outside the USA, have a sponsor and a valid and unexpired passport, pass a series of US security checks, present a series of certificates, such as proof of vaccination, and prove reasons of either humanitarian urgency or significant public benefit. Hence it cannot be considered an alternative measure for people who decide to cross the Darién Gap, the dense rainforest area on the border between Colombia and Panama.
What is it like to go through the Darién Gap?
The Darién connects South and Central America and is an obligatory passage on the way north for those making the journey by land. It is therefore the main route for the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants. It is possible to leave Colombia at many points, but all routes converge on the Darién, which migrants call ‘the jungle from hell’. All those who have crossed it say they underestimated the difficulty of going through the jungle.
A little over a month ago, I was at the San Vicente migration station in the Panamanian province of Darién. This is the first place people arrive after crossing, where they receive medical attention. Sometimes, out of groups of 10 people our teams spoke to, all 10 – men, women, children and older people – had been raped or sexually abused.
The children would arrive in a state of psychological shock: they would immediately start talking in unison about the dead bodies they had seen on the road. This marks them deeply. These children have had their childhoods twice interrupted: first by migration, and second by the violence they have witnessed or experienced in the process.
It is impossible to talk about the Darién without talking about trafficking networks, human smuggling, sexual abuse and children crossing unaccompanied, sometimes even for the second time. In migratory processes such as these, we are dealing with children, older people, entire families who even travel with their pets. Their vulnerability exposes them to all kinds of abuse. The Darién is claiming many lives that neither the Colombian nor Panamanian governments can quantify. Many bodies are not claimed by anyone.
What would be the consequences of the closure of the Darién Gap that Panama claims to be considering?
When I hear that Panama is thinking of closing the Darién crossing, what I really hear is Panama asking for help. Panama needs regional support to share the responsibility of dealing with this issue. These are not their migrants, but that should not be an excuse for not integrating many of them into their country. Panama simply wants the migration flow to disappear, which is not going to happen.
The closure of the Darién as such is not possible because it is not a clearly defined road but rather a series of 20 or so passes through a very extensive jungle. There is no way to close a jungle. It remains to be seen what kind of forceful measures, as the government has called them, Panama takes. But I don’t think they will have much effect, as people will continue to look for other routes into the jungle, as well as sea routes to get to Panama and continue their way north.
How are Venezuelan migrants treated in the USA?
When a city, state or country receives large migratory flows in a very short time, there tend to be spikes in xenophobia. This is happening in many places that have received large flows of Venezuelans and other migrants.
However, there is a contrast between government policies and the often receptive and fraternal attitudes of the American people. These have contrasted sharply with the policies adopted, for example, in the state of Florida, which is a state historically built and inhabited by immigrants and the children of immigrants.
Generally speaking, the American people, who have historically received immigrants from all over the world, are open to receiving Venezuelans under appropriate conditions so they can integrate into their country. What’s needed is for US policy to move in that direction, starting with the right to seek refuge while in US territory, which is one of the things that humanitarian parole doesn’t allow.
What does Coalition for Venezuela do, and what support does it need to keep doing it?
Coalition for Venezuela began five years ago with 31 organisations, and today it includes 98 legally constituted and federated organisations, led by Venezuelan migrants and refugees, and has a presence in 23 countries. Our network facilitates the sharing of knowledge, good practices and successful forms of intervention, and allows us to cover issues ranging from humanitarian assistance to the defence of civil and political rights.
Despite all this work, it is only now in 2023 that we have received our first funding. We need all the help we can get, especially to work on strengthening the capacities of our organisations. We also need help to go directly to the organisations in our network, specifically in Central America. In the area of humanitarian action there are many intermediaries, and organisations on the ground are the last link. Impact would be multiplied many times over if aid and funding were directed directly to community-based organisations.
Coalition for Venezuela does not limit its work to Venezuelans. We see the needs of people of other nationalities and assist them. We also work with networks of migrants and refugees from other parts of the world because we want to learn from other, longer-standing processes. For us this is a relatively new crisis. We Venezuelans were used to receiving migrants and exiles, people fleeing dictatorships. And now it is our turn to migrate: about 20 per cent of our population has left our country. We are working with others and learning from them, which makes us proud.
Civic space in Venezuela is rated ‘repressed‘ by the CIVICUS Monitor.