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3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, according to new U.N. estimate

Venezuelan migrants stand along a roadside after leaving a migrant care center in Tumbes, Peru, near the border with Ecuador, on Nov. 1. Only Venezuelan citizens who entered Peru by Oct. 31 were eligible to obtain temporary residence permits. (Juan Vita/AFP)

A new U.N. estimate has found that the number of people who have fled Venezuela in the country’s economic collapse and political chaos since 2015 has reached 3 million — marking an exodus comparable to the ones seen in war-ravaged countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.

The estimate was compiled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. refugee agency, and the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency. The agencies say it includes both refugees and migrants and was estimated using data from national migration authorities in the region.

The scale of the number of people leaving the country makes it comparable to some of the world’s most severe refugee crises in recent years. According to estimates from UNHCR, there were 6.3 million refugees from Syria at the end of 2017, which was the worst refugee crisis in the world, followed by 2.6 million from Afghanistan and 2.4 million from South Sudan, another country recently afflicted by war.

William Spindler, a spokesman for UNHCR, said that although most Venezuelans were not fleeing the sort of armed conflict seen in Syria or Afghanistan, they could be considered refugees under the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, a nonbinding agreement signed by 14 Latin American countries in 1984.

“Venezuelans are leaving their country for a combination of reasons, including insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine and essential services, as well as loss of income and lack of effective national protection systems as a result of the current political and socioeconomic situation,” Spindler said.

“UNHCR believes that these circumstances fall under the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration that extends the refugee definition to include ‘persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order,’ " he said.

The refugees and migrants from Venezuela have ended up spread unevenly throughout the region, according to the estimate. Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia hosted more than 1 million. It was followed by Peru, which had more than half a million; Ecuador, with more than 220,000; Argentina, 130,000; Chile, more than 100,000; and Brazil, 85,000. Countries in Central America and the Caribbean are also hosting large numbers of Venezuelans, the report estimated.

At least some have made their way to the United States. Data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showed a surge of 88 percent in the number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in 2017, with the number totaling 27,629 by the end of the year. Those who make it to the United States are generally better off financially.

The scale of the problem is likely to require more international coordination, said Eduardo Stein, the UNHCR-IOM joint special representative for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.

“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy to refugees and migrants from Venezuela; however, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community if this generosity and solidarity are to continue,” Stein said.

It’s a problem that seems to be getting worse. “According to official data from national migration authorities, the flow of people leaving Venezuela has increased in the last six months,” Spindler said.

The Venezuelan economy has collapsed since oil prices dropped in 2010, and critics say that the economic policies of President Nicolás Maduro and his immediate predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have made the crisis far worse. A report released by the country’s opposition-held Congress on Wednesday estimated that inflation had hit 833,997 percent in October.

Maduro has blamed an “economic war” waged by the United States and other “imperialist” countries for the nation’s economic problems.

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