The roots of the Venezuelan refugee crisis and how COVID-19 has worsened it

The Syrian refugee crisis has been the object of multiple discussions of the international public opinion. It started in 2011 as a consequence of the Arab Spring and soon radicalized generating more than 10 million between refugees and internally displaced persons (World Vision, 2020). Its impact has been mainly perceived by the neighbouring countries of Syria, as well as in the European Union[1]. However, the refuge crisis in Venezuela, is rapidly approaching the figures of the Syrian one[2]

Despite its magnitude, European media have often overlooked its developments. Arguably, the main reason behind this lack of attention is the fact that the largest number of people fleeing from Venezuela tend to remain within the sub-region[3]. This is not to say that the crisis had no impact on the European territory. In 2019 the largest increase of international protection applications in the European Union territory in comparison with 2018 was registered for Venezuelan citizens. Furthermore, Venezuela nationals also represented the highest number of applicants from a third country to one of the EU Member States, with 40.305 applications submitted in Spain (Eurostat, 2020). The main reason why Venezuelans use to request asylum in Spain is language affinity, one of the major pull factors of migration. 

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Root causes of Venezuela crisis

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the result of the compounded effect of the severe political and economic crisis that afflicts the country. This turmoil has deep historical roots, but the origin of the humanitarian crisis resulting from it can be traced back to the first election of Nicolás Maduro in 2013 (Standley, et al., 2020). 

Venezuela is a petrostate, which means that it is a country with «weak institutions and a malfunctioning public sector. Its most important feature are laws that grant subsoil rights to the government, from which spring the extraordinary size and duration of the “petro-rent” which is much, much greater than the profits which can be made in the private sector» (Martinez, 2005). Most petrostates are afflicted by the so-called resource curse, explained by Wenar (2017) as the law that condemns the states with the most natural resources to be, in the majority of the cases, failed states. The economic explanation behind the resource curse lies in the Dutch disease. Countries afflicted by it firstly experience a resource boom that attracts FDIs, leading to an appreciation of the national currency and to cheaper imports. Consequently, most of the resources are transferred to imports-based industries, determining unemployment, negative balance of payments and an unhealthy dependence on the natural resource (Cheatham & Labrador, 2021). However, the most dangerous consequence of the Dutch disease is the risk of a decline in the prices of the natural resource, which is exactly what happened in Venezuela in 2016.

The economic crisis is exacerbated by a political one. The 2018 elections saw Maduro’s highly controversial re-election, which brought the President of the Venezuelan Parliament Juan Guaidó to declare the presidency of the country as vacant and that he would be the acting President. Today, most western and Latin American governments recognized Guaidó as the legitimate President, but Maduro is still the political and military guide of the country with the support of the main authoritarian regimes (Standley, et al., 2020). This situation brought to a political deadlock where Maduro is mostly concerned with reinforcing his position rather than addressing the current crisis. Furthermore, he is even denying the existence of both the economic and humanitarian crisis, blaming western sanctions and impeding NGOs and international organizations to enter Venezuela to offer aid (Center for Disaster Philantropy, 2021).

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The political and economic crisis significantly worsened the living conditions of the population, generating a humanitarian and refugee crisis. Venezuela is currently hit by hyperinflation, which reached an astonishing 65374.08% in 2018 (Statista, 2021). The country is also afflicted by shortage of food, medicines, and by a general collapse of the national health system, with the resurgence of diseases previously eradicated (Standley, et al., 2020). Furthermore, political opponents are targeted by Maduro’s regime, which also implements harsh measures on protesters. Conversely, the government is unable to tackle the rise of crimes within the country (International Organization for Migration, 2020, p. 102).

Impact of Covid-19

Venezuela, as the whole Latin American region, has been harshly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the official numbers are considered to be an underestimate of the real impact of the virus, mainly because of the condition of the health system that would make appropriate testing difficult (Center for Disaster Philantropy, 2021). Despite the pandemic, Venezuela’s neighbouring countries have manifested the will to keep hosting refugees and migrants from Venezuela, but the pandemic reduced their hosting capability by a substantial degree.

As extensively discussed in the 2021 RMRP(Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2020), the virus had a negative impact on each critical situation that migrants were already facing. In particular, countries mainly reacted to the pandemic by closing national borders. This measure has determined a decrease in the number of Venezuelans leaving their country, and some 13.5000 people were reported to have returned to Venezuela to arguably reunite with their families during these uncertain times. In spite of this trend[4], migration has not stopped. It only changed its form. Before the pandemic, there was at least a limited degree of security in the routes and in the means of transportations used by migrants. The closure of regular routes brought refugees to resort to irregular and high-risk forms of travel such as walking, exposing themselves to human trafficking, smuggling and various types of violence

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Furthermore, COVID-19 exacerbated the already severe health crisis. With most, if not all, resources dedicated to the containment of the spread of the virus, primary healthcare operations such as vaccines or treatments against common diseases such as HIV, have been suspended or neglected. 

Another crucial area is shelter, as the economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic made the number of evictions rise dramatically this year. Moreover, collective shelters that used to host large number of refugees had to reduce the number of people they could accept due to social distancing, determining even here an issue of protection and security. 


This brief analysis has discussed the Venezuelan humanitarian and refugee crisis. After having pointed out its origins, it discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the condition of the migrants. Needless to say, the pandemic significantly worsened their already critical condition, determining the insurgence of new security issues mainly associated with irregular routes of migration and lack of shelter. 

In a multidimensional crisis like this, many other areas would need attention. Issues of food security, gender, education, integration and so on are of prominent importance. However, the two aspects analyzed are arguably the most relevant ones and have the most direct link with human rights abuses

Written by Alessio Pasquali

[1] Today, Syria is still the first country of origin of asylum applicants in the European Union (Eurostat, 2020)

[2] As of November 2020, approximately 5.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants are outside of the country, with around 4.6 million established in Latin America. These numbers make the Venezuelan crisis the largest in the region’s history (Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2020, p. 6).

[3] Ivi.

[4] Anyway, this trend is already being reversed (Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2020, p. 15).


Center for Disaster Philantropy, 2021. Venezuelan humanitarian and refugee crisis. [Online] 
Available at:

Cheatham, A. & Labrador, R. C., 2021. Venezuela: The Rise and Fall of a Petrostate. Council on Foreign Relations, 22 January. 

Eurostat, 2020. Asylum statistics. [Online] 
Available at:

Eurostat, 2020. Data visualisation on asylum. [Online] 
Available at:

Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2020. Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan 2021.

International Organization for Migration, 2020. WORLD MIGRATION REPORT 2020, Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Martinez, I., 2005. The Curse of the Petro-State: The Example of Venezuela. The Library of Economics and Liberty, 5 September. 

Standley, C. J. et al., 2020. Data and cooperation required for Venezuela’s refugee crisis during COVID-19. Globalization and Health, 16(103).

Statista, 2021. Venezuela: Inflation rate from 1985 to 2022. [Online] 
Available at:,as%20Venezuela’s%20economy%20is%20collapsing.

Wenar, L., 2017. Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

World Vision, 2020. Syrian refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help. [Online] 
Available at:,Syrian%20refugee%20crisis%20are%20children.


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