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Opinion Refugee status and aid would unleash the potential of Venezuelan migrants

Venezuelan residents arriving at an informal migrant camp in Bogota, Colombia, on Sept. 9. (Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg)

Dany Bahar is a David M. Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate at the Harvard Center for International Development. David Smolansky heads the working group for Venezuelan refugees and migrants at the Organization of American States. He is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and a former mayor of El Hatillo, in Caracas, Venezuela. 

Perhaps the most urgent crisis being discussed at the United Nations’ General Assembly this week is the 2.3 million Venezuelans who have fled their country and the many more who have yet to leave. Throughout Latin America, early sympathy toward the migrants might be starting to give way to a backlash, while governments are trying to coordinate responses through several high-level meetings. As migrants keep crossing borders and cases of xenophobia become more common, some authorities might start acting out of fear. Yet desperate Venezuelans won’t stop migrating: They’re fleeing for survival.

Smart leaders should recognize that opening their doors to Venezuelan migrants is not only the right thing to do but is also smart politics: These migrants and refugees constitute a chance to upgrade their own social infrastructure and boost their economies.

The first step would be to declare a regional refugee crisis, recognizing Venezuelans as refugees, a prime facie, based on the principles stated in the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees of 1984. Both the deep humanitarian crisis and the increasing political control over the population serve as grounds to do so. This will allow newcomers to gain legal status until is safe to return, and will make humanitarian assistance available to those in need while they integrate into communities. A comprehensive regional agreement can help governments share the burden based on quotas for refugee admissions. Donor countries, including the United States, should also participate in allowing in more Venezuelan refugees by lifting the restrictive cap on the Refugee Admissions Program.

After this, the region should reach out to the donor community to create a multilateral emergency fund that should go much beyond the nearly $100 million generously donated by the United States and Europe, combined, so far. Donor capacity for creating a multibillion-dollar fund for Venezuelan refugees exists. Since 2012, for example, the international community has donated more than $33 billion to assist the Syrian people. The United States alone has provided nearly $7.7 billion of humanitarian assistance since 2011, including some $3.6 billion to countries hosting refugees. Recently, the World Bank committed $2 billion to finance projects in low-income countries hosting refugees.

This fund would bear fruits for all the inhabitants of those countries, not only the incoming migrants. Besides humanitarian assistance, this outside cash could be used to build and improve local schools and hospitals (many of which are already stretched to capacity), as well as transportation, communication and energy infrastructure to help accommodate the influx of newcomers. Done right, this inward investment will improve the lives not just of Venezuelan migrants but of all the inhabitants in the receiving communities, too.

After funds start flowing in, the region should try to coordinate a standardized integration strategy for all Venezuelans across the continent. An early step must be to fast-track work permits for Venezuelans even with no documents, as the governments in Colombia and Chile recently decided to do. It’s a politically sensitive measure, but rigorous research has shown that large inflows of newcomers into local labor markets have little to no effect on the host populations’ own job prospects. Work permits are also the solution to rising crime rates: Studies in Italy, Britain and Malaysia, for instance, show sharp reductions in crime when immigrants are integrated into the workforce.

Venezuelan migrants could even put a dent in the chronic unemployment the region suffers from. All over the world, data shows migrants become entrepreneurs at higher rates than natives, create fast-growing businesses and even account for the emergence of new export sectors. This isn’t surprising: Risk-takers are over-represented in migrant flows, precisely the type of people who often go on to start small businesses. We saw this firsthand in our trip to Cucuta, Colombia, in April, where we met many entrepreneurs contributing to the local economy, such as Eduardo Espinel, a Venezuelan entrepreneur who now employs more than 30 Colombians and Venezuelans across five restaurants.

Simple things such as allowing migrants to open bank accounts under their names and to register new businesses without too much hassle, for example, can boost the entrepreneurial potential of migrants. More assertive policies, such as allowing migrants to participate alongside local populations in new or existing public programs aimed at providing business training and easing access to credit, could increase job creation rates in the receiving communities.

Will formally declaring a crisis fuel an even bigger migration? No. It’s the wholesale collapse of Venezuela’s economy that’s pushing people to leave, not the policies of neighboring countries that are pulling them there.

As long as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, the threat of instability will loom over the region: The number of migrants could well double over the next 12 months. In parallel to increasing pressure to confront the root of the problem, governments in the region should also figure out a smart policy response to the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Why wait? Let’s make of this an economic opportunity for Latin America. But more important, let’s help these migrants and refugees reach their full potential, wherever they are. They will be the key for the reconstruction of a democratic Venezuela.