World Refugee Survey 2009: Venezuela
By the end of 2008, there were almost 1,200 registered refugees and 12,000 asylum seekers in Venezuela, most of them Colombian. In addition their were as many as 200,000 unregistered Colombian refugees living in remote areas.
2008 Events Summary
Violence from Colombia spread into Venezuela more often as armed groups operated in Venezuela for longer periods of time during 2008. Colombian groups committed kidnappings, extorted ransoms, and forcibly recruited children.
Authorities rarely detain registered refugees arbitrarily, but members of Venezuela’s national guard frequently extort money from and otherwise threaten unregistered asylum seekers. When national guardsmen detain refugees or asylum seekers at checkpoints, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) typically intervenes directly with them, while when police in Caracas arrest refugees UNHCR deals with the immigration department or the National Committee for Refugees (CNR).
Nearly 3,000 asylum seekers applied for protection from Venezuela during 2008, the vast majority Colombian. A small but growing number came from Africa and the Middle East.
During the year, many refugees, who had typically remained in border areas, began to move to other parts of the country in search of security, work, and public services.
Law and Policy
Venezuela is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees but it is to its 1967 Protocol, which incorporates most of the Convention’s rights. It reserves, however, the right to favor other foreigners over refugees through regional and sub-regional agreements and exempts itself from the Protocol’s grant of jurisdiction to the International Court of Justice. The 1999 Constitution stipulates that human rights treaties the country had ratified has Constitutional hierarchy. In 2001, Venezuela adopted the Refugee Law and adopted accompanying regulations in 2003.
The CNR oversees STRs in Caracas and three cities in border states: San Cristobal, Táchira State; Maracaibo, Zulia State; and Guasdualito, Apure State. The STRs register asylum seekers who approaches the offices, but this is frequently difficult as most asylum seekers live in remote areas and there are police and military checkpoints on the roads leading to the cities. STRs staff does not travel to the major refugee-hosting areas because of security concerns, but UNHCR and its implementing partners do register asylum seekers in remote areas and submit the paperwork to the STRs. Under the Refugee Law, any government or military official can accept asylum applications, but very few besides the STRs and UNHCR do.
Despite a stipulation in the Refugee Law requiring a 90-day limit for asylum registration decisions, the average wait is two years. The delay is due to the limited resources of the CNR and the STR, security concerns over the ongoing conflict in Colombia spilling over into Venezuela, and the fact that the CNR and the STR are both made up of officials from other government institutions whose time are taken up with other duties.
The CNR decides asylum claims, and asylum seekers generally have access to information, legal advice from UNHCR and its partners, and French or English interpreters as needed. There are no special procedures for women, unaccompanied children, or torture victims, and the confidentiality of the proceedings is suspect because CNR’s basement office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one large, open room with no cubicles or other dividers.
Detention/Access to Courts
The Refugee Law requires the CNR to issue provisional documents to asylum seekers when they approach the office, guaranteeing their right to stay in the country until they receive a decision on their claims. In practice, however, CNR only refers asylum seekers to the Immigration Office to receive the documents after it has interviewed them, leaving them without documents for months at a time. Additionally, the documents it issues are only valid for 60 days, rather than 90 as the Refugee Law requires.
Recognized refugees are entitled to free identity cards from the National Office of Identification and Immigration (ONIDEX) in the Ministry of Interior. It only issues these cards in Caracas, however, meaning refugees without the resources to travel to the capital remain undocumented. Government officials resist requests to allow issuance in more remote areas, reportedly because of fears that Colombian rebels will obtain cards and gain easy access to Venezuela and concerns over corruption in ONIDEX. Also, the cards give refugees the status of transeuntes, which the Law of Migration and Immigration (Migration Law) of 2004 eliminated. The Government planned to correct this problem when it issued regulations for the Migration Law. The cards are valid for a year, and allow refugees to work and attend school.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Although the Constitution guaranteed freedom of movement to all, frequent checkpoints make it extremely difficult for undocumented refugees and asylum seekers to move about the country, and many choose to remain in their communities rather than risk arrest by traveling. UNHCR assists some of the neediest refugees and asylum seekers in traveling to ONIDEX and STR offices to obtain refugee documents.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
According to the Refugee Law, refugee cards are enough to authorize employment without additional permits. Venezuela also allows recognized refugees to run businesses and to practice professions, and applies its labor laws to them as to nationals. Most refugees, especially those without identification, and all asylum seekers, work in the informal sector without the protection of labor laws and tend to receive lower wages than Venezuelans.
Refugees can purchase and own real property, with the only limit being on ownership of land in border areas by foreigners. Because of their lack of identification, asylum seekers have more difficulty in purchasing property.
Public Relief and Education
Refugees in Venezuela have access to health services on par with nationals. While UNHCR provides food aid only to several refugees and asylum seekers, they generally benefits from Government programs that provide food and other essentials at subsidized prices.
Although the Refugee Law requires a refugee identification card to register children for school, the Ministry of Education promulgated a resolution in 1999 directing that schools enroll all children, regardless of documentation. Some schools remain unaware of this or resist, however, and some asylum seekers are reluctant to allow their children to attend. Refugees sometimes have difficulty graduating from Venezuelan schools because they cannot provide records of their schooling in their homelands.
Microcredit programs, sponsored by UNHCR, for refugees started in Venezuela in 2005 in the three states bordering Colombia: Apure, Tachira, and Zulia.
UNHCR and Jesuit Refugee Service work on programs aimed at supporting communities in which Colombian refugees live alongside Venezuelans.
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