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Opinion It’s time for the world to stand with Venezuelan refugees

Venezuelans cross the Simon Bolivar international bridge into Cucuta, Colombia, last year. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

Provash Budden is the Americas regional director for Mercy Corps.

As we observe World Refugee Day this week, with 68.5 million people around the world uprooted from their homes, the worst humanitarian and migration crisis in the Western Hemisphere continues to deteriorate in Venezuela, spilling into South and Central America and the Caribbean.

More than 1.5 million Venezuelans are displaced — a number likely to grow after the contested election of President Nicolás Maduro, whose economic policies have caused severe food and medicine shortages as hyperinflation hits 13,000 percent. The average Venezuelan eats only one meal each day and has lost 24 pounds in the past year. A flow of migration has now put enormous pressure on neighboring countries facing their own economic and political woes.

With the region nearing a tipping point, it is time for the world to wake up to this crisis, and for the international community — led by the United Nations, the United States, Latin American leaders and aid organizations such as mine — to stand up for the people of Venezuela. We must mount a coordinated humanitarian and diplomatic response to address factors inside Venezuela forcing people to migrate, negotiate access for aid organizations to work in the country, and meet the needs of Venezuelans who have fled and the countries hosting them.

First and foremost, we must provide lifesaving assistance to Venezuelans struggling with increasing malnutrition, deteriorating health care and dwindling hope. We will not be able to get the funds or access we need unless diplomatic levers are used to persuade the Venezuelan government to acknowledge the crisis. Continued denial is untenable. “There is no food, no medicine,” said Rigoberto Perez, when my team met him along the Venezuela-Colombia border last month.  “Boys and girls are starving to death. Everything is more expensive each day.”

Second, we must address the impact of displacement in countries such as Colombia, where tensions are rising as Venezuelans take jobs at lower, exploitative wages than legally allowed, and also sell items brought from Venezuela at a lower cost than Colombian businesses can afford to compete with. Colombians tell us they are empathetic to the plight of Venezuelans, but growing competition for jobs and resources exacerbates the numerous challenges their communities face.

Despite these tensions, we see Colombians stepping up to help. In the border city of Riohacha, Maria del Rosario, 68, operates Fundación Casa Del Abuelo Esperanza Viva, or “Grandpa’s House.” She has opened her doors to almost 30 Venezuelans, and what started as a single lunch for about 150 hungry Venezuelans has become a waystation for families who live alongside the elderly residents of the Casa.

We need to encourage and support these local efforts, and to prevent a backlash against Venezuelans, aid organizations must ensure that Venezuelans and host communities benefit from assistance. In places such as the highly insecure Colombian border city of Maicao, organizations such as Mercy Corps, where I work, can promote social interaction and improve stability.

Of the more than 1 million registered Venezuelans in Colombia, more than half arrived without visas, stamped passports or temporary permission and risk deportation. In addition to considering new regional frameworks for migration and refugee norms, the Lima Group — representing 14 countries addressing the crisis in Venezuela — and the Organization of American States should strengthen national asylum systems and other legal arrangements, invoking international norms and law on migration and asylum standards.

A coordinated, strengthened regional migration effort would provide Venezuelans access to the right to work, health care and other basic services, and a more permanent solution to the problem of migration status. No matter how politically sensitive these conversations are, the region should take actions now that will set Venezuelans and host communities up for success — whether the crisis lasts one year, five years or longer. This effort could create a model for other parts of the world struggling with increased cross-border displacement.

Finally, the United States must commit to a diplomatic strategy focused on alleviating the suffering of the Venezuelan people. This means working with regional leaders whose collective diplomatic pressure on the Maduro government will be far more effective than unilateral U.S. public condemnation. The United States must avoid the impulse to go it alone by imposing new unilateral sanctions against the Venezuelan oil sector, which will exacerbate inflation problems and have dire humanitarian consequences. The historical record suggests that the ultimate targets of any new U.S. sanctions would be the most vulnerable Venezuelans — those who are still left in the country and cannot flee  — including the sick, the elderly and the most impoverished.

Above all, we must remember that most Venezuelans wish to return home to the life and families they left behind. “I really, really hope, and I pray every day for Venezuela to be better,” said Zulay Sugueri, who is staying at the Casa. “I really want to come back to my country.”