New immigration restrictions announced by several countries in Latin America to stem the tide of migrants fleeing Venezuela could further open the door for criminal exploitation of the migrant population.
The governments of Peru, Ecuador and Brazil announced they would require passports of the Venezuelans fleeing. The new measure follows a renewed surge in Venezuelans seeking refuge, which has tripled in recent months.
According to the United Nations, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country. Their main destinations are Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, the UN says.
Although the flow of migrants was partially reversed following the measures, reports immediately surfaced of migrants falling into the hands of “coyote mafias,” which operate as human trafficking networks, as they moved through less traveled routes.
Peru, the country with the second highest influx of Venezuelan migrants, put its new measures into place following a rash of xenophobic attacks on Venezuelans and a major arrest of alleged members of a Venezuelan mega-gang known as the Train of Aragua (El Tren de Aragua).
Another dispute erupted in Brazil's northernmost Roraima state after two Venezuelan migrants allegedly assaulted and robbed a Brazilian businessman. The Brazilian died, sparking clashes and resulting in the expulsion of several Venezuelans.
Brazil President Michel Temer has gone even further, announcing the militarization of the country's border with Venezuela and labeling citizens of the neighboring country “a threat to South America.”
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There is now an undeniable regional dimension to the issue. Amnesty International and the United Nations have issued statements on the matter, and representatives from 11 nations in the region recently attended a summit in Quito, Ecuador, to talk through the situation.
The emergency summit led to the Declaration of Quito on September 4, in which the signatories agreed to make some entry requirements more flexible for Venezuelans and to join forces in combating “human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.”
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The size of this massive exodus and the often desperate state of the migrants makes them easy prey for organized crime networks.
“Desperation opens a path to all kinds of criminal networks involved in human trafficking and smuggling, exploitation, forced prostitution, slavery, and criminal recruitment," explained Beatriz Borges, the head of the Center for Justice and Peace (Centro de Justicia y Paz – CEPAZ), a human rights organization in Venezuela that specializes in migration, human trafficking and smuggling issues. "They’re having a field day with Venezuelans. The development [of criminal activities] is in full swing, and there is no way to measure it because we’re talking about invisible networks, and the victims don’t report [the crimes].”
Borges told InSight Crime that “right now, Venezuelan migration should be categorized as forced migration because it is unplanned and for survival. This migrant profile is three times more vulnerable to criminal networks, and the different countries -- both transit and receiving countries -- have a responsibility to protect migrants and prevent these risks.”
The risks are myriad. While conducting fieldwork, for example, InSight Crime’s Colombia Investigative Team discovered that criminal groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas were recruiting Venezuelans. Moreover, four Venezuelans who had joined FARC dissident groups died during a June bombing operation by Colombian authorities.
The CEPAZ director added that restrictive measures “leave Venezuelan migrants exposed, and they open up spaces for human smuggling and trafficking because the people are under abnormal conditions and are willing to accept anything offered to them.”
Lilian Aya Ramírez, a Venezuelan sociologist and lawyer living in Colombia, has studied the situation faced by migrants from her home country and agreed with Borges, adding that “trafficking occurs where drug and weapons trafficking also occur.”
She mentioned that a higher number of Venezuelans are being detected in the drug trade.
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“With tighter controls, people are going to look for a way to get through and [government] officials are going to be paid off to violate [regulations] to get the migrants through. That’s what leads to an underground market. Illegal migration isn’t the same as human trafficking, but it’s a way to blackmail, control and manipulate migrants,” Ramírez told InSight Crime.
She stressed that “the majority of migrants are very young, and this puts them in a more vulnerable situation. I’ve seen cases in Bogotá of young people who have been lured with false job offers when they’re still in Venezuela, and when they get to Colombia [the jobs] turn out to be trafficking and modern slavery networks.”
The Declaration of Quito may be an important first step in dealing with the issue. But while it mentioned some of the risks, it failed to state what concrete actions the governments will take to protect migrants who are vulnerable to criminal groups.