(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
The situation in Venezuela today is extremely difficult. Food shortages are ubiquitous. There is unrest. Protests are large and occasionally dangerous.
As one reporter told NPR recently, “every single supermarket here has got hundreds of people outside every single day waiting for six if not longer hours for real basics. We're talking pasta, flour, that sort of thing.”
It’s been a uniquely challenging time for everyone, including HIAS’ team in Venezuela. Nevertheless, they have not let challenging circumstances prevent them from fulfilling their mission to assist refugees and asylum seekers.
“Things are really bad right now,” said Marcel Navas, country director for HIAS in Venezuela. “But it's amazing to see how, even under these conditions, we are still up and running. We have amazing professionals on our staff who continue doing great work here for our beneficiaries, as well as for other Venezuelan citizens.”
Officially, Venezuela is home to about 7,800 refugees. In practice, that number is well above 160,000 persons who are in need of international protection. The vast majority are from Colombia, which shares a land border with Venezuela.
Colombians are present in Venezuela in such large numbers because of the more than 50-year conflict in their own country. Although a peace deal was announced in December between the government and the main rebel group, known as the FARC, no one knows if this peace will hold and violence continues to plague the country.
“Venezuela has generously hosted numerous Colombian persons of concern for decades; however, the majority remain unregistered and are being particularly affected by a deteriorating economic situation, increased migratory controls and insecurity,” according to the UN’s refugee arm, UNHCR.
HIAS has worked in Venezuela since 2007, and has served more than 28,000 people during that period.
Initially, their focus was primarily psychosocial—providing mental health services and emotional support to those who had fled conflict and persecution. However, as circumstances and needs changed, HIAS Venezuela adapted, shifting its focus to legal protection, access to documentation and promoting food security.
Today, they serve roughly 3,000 people a year, working from seven offices across the country, from the capital city of Caracas to the remote Puerto Ayacucho. The vast majority of their clients come from Colombia, though they have a few from as far as Syria. They also build support and solidarity between host community and refugee populations.
The emphasis on documentation is highly practical. In Venezuela, a valid ID is required for almost all of life’s necessities, from buying food to accessing health care. So HIAS staff do all they can to help their clients get those critical documents quickly.
“You need to meet those basic needs first,” Navas stresses. “How do you provide counseling to someone who hasn’t eaten in a week?”
Navas joined the HIAS team as country director only one year ago. He brings more than 20 years of private sector experience, as well as enthusiasm for HIAS’ mission to the position.
“I always wanted to serve humanity. So when this opportunity came through my front door, I took it,” Navas said. “I applied, and here I am!”
“It’s amazing the work our team is doing here in Venezuela, even though there are so many challenges. It’s incredible,” Navas said. “We are transforming lives.”
Navas and his team remain passionately committed to that work, but he admits that the situation has created significant challenges. HIAS Venezuela staff are heavily impacted by the day-to-day situation in the country, but they remain focused on their mission of serving the most vulnerable.
“The situation here is critical, especially in the last two months,” Navas says. “It's difficult to find food, and if you do, the prices are extremely high. It's hard to find toothpaste or toilet paper or powdered milk.”
“Children are dying. And I’m talking about Venezuelan children. We don’t have enough medicine. We don’t have proper materials or doctors. It's like we are in a war-time situation.”
“Let me give you an example,” Navas offers. “Last week my youngest son had the flu and the doctor recommended some antibiotics for him. It took me almost five days to find it. And that’s for me, a Venezuelan citizen. Imagine someone who is a refugee and who doesn’t even have an ID document.”
There are also protests and looting to worry about. Violence can break out unexpectedly. But the worst part is seeing the people they serve struggle. Navas says they have seen many malnourished children in recent days. One mother lost two infants.
“I have been monitoring this and in every office, we have malnutrition cases,” he says.
“It's difficult to see these types of things. It's hard to explain how that feels,” Navas offers. “We try to help as much as we can, but we have limited resources.”
To ensure that their work is as impactful as possible, the HIAS Venezuela team coordinates closely with the rest of the humanitarian assistance community, including UNHCR, the Red Cross, Caritas, Jesuit Refugee Service, Norwegian Refugee Council, the Refugee Education Trust and the International Organization for Migration.
“We collaborate with these partners on a regular basis to analyze the dynamic humanitarian situation, share information and coordinate responses across all locations where HIAS works,” Navas said. “HIAS takes an inclusive, community-based approach to our work in order to pave the way for beneficiaries to become more self-sufficient and integrated.”
This includes aligning the HIAS program with a key UNHCR objective: to create the environment for a legal agreement for Colombian beneficiaries living in Venezuela for more than a decade, so that they can become candidates for citizenship.
Despite challenging circumstances, the team at HIAS Venezuela is determined to keep serving those who rely on them for care and protection.
“What inspires me about this work is how you can transform lives. People who have lost everything are getting a fresh start in Venezuela,” Navas said. “Even under these conditions, they’re building lives with dignity here.”
HIAS serves refugees and asylum seekers in 12 countries around the world, including Venezuela. For more on our work with Colombian refugees across Latin America, click here.