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Why Thousands Of People Are Leaving Venezuela


There is a growing refugee crisis in Latin America. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia each day. Hundreds more go to Brazil. They're fleeing a political, social and economic crisis in Venezuela. And that's putting a strain on neighboring countries. For more, we are joined now by Geoff Ramsey. He's the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. That's a research and advocacy organization. Welcome to the program, Geoff.

GEOFF RAMSEY: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: How desperate are the Venezuelans? What are they resorting to as they leave their country?

RAMSEY: The wave of migrants and refugees that are crossing over now are people that are most affected by the economic crisis. And in many cases, they're selling off all of their assets. And they find out that it's not worth much. It amounts to pocket change because hyperinflation has wracked the Venezuelan economy. So they're desperate.

BLOCK: As we said, there are tens of thousands of Venezuelans crossing into Colombia every day. Where are they going? Where are they staying?

RAMSEY: Well, it's a mix. About half of them are sort of clustering in border areas, working in the informal sector, trying to send money back home to Venezuela. And about half are moving on to larger cities in Colombia, trying to find whatever work opportunities are available for them there and, in some cases, moving on to the border with Peru and Ecuador. We've seen Venezuelans go as far as Chile and Argentina.

BLOCK: So we're not seeing refugee camps, tent camps being set up at this point.

RAMSEY: Not in Colombia. On the Brazilian border, it's another matter entirely. There's about 12 different camps that have been set up on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. And those look very much like what you would expect a refugee camp to look like. It's tents, shelters set up for Venezuelan families to come together and have access to food and health services.

BLOCK: Tensions do seem to be rising. There was an angry mob in Brazil harassing a group of refugees in a border town. For example, Brazil's president is said to be sending the army to guard the border. How is this playing out in the region?

RAMSEY: Well, different countries are responding in different ways. Brazil's an interesting case because while they've been sort of more active in terms of setting up shelters - there's about a dozen different shelters on the Venezuelan border now - the response has largely been led by the Defense Ministry. And as we see increasing tensions and xenophobia between the local population and Venezuelans, our concern is that the lack of transparency for military abuses in Brazil could lead to human rights abuses.

BLOCK: When you've spoken with some of the Venezuelan refugees, are they hopeful that, one day, they will be able to go back to their home country?

RAMSEY: Well, you know, I'd be lying if I said that's - that that was the case. Unfortunately, most Venezuelans that I've talked to that have fled the country are doing so because they don't see any change in sight. The government has sort of entrenched itself politically. They don't seem to be willing or able to turn around their economic tailspin. And, you know, unless some kind of peaceful, negotiated solution emerges in the coming months and years, I don't think this crisis is going to get any better.

BLOCK: Geoff Ramsey. He's a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. Geoff, thanks for coming in.

RAMSEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.