Venezuelan migrants wait at an immigration control point on the Ecuador-Peru border, before the end of a special visa program and tightened entry requirements that demand passports, in Tumbes, Peru, June 14, 2019. Peru unexpectedly became the country with the second-highest number of asylum requests globally last year. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
Venezuelan migrants wait at an immigration control point on the Ecuador-Peru border, before the end of a special visa program and tightened entry requirements that demand passports, in Tumbes, Peru, June 14, 2019. Ecuador this weekend follows suit in toughening entry requirements in the face of a flood of asylum seekers © AP

The number of Venezuelans fleeing the country has spiked in recent weeks after the Ecuadorean government said it would tighten entry requirements for migrants and the US imposed tougher sanctions on Caracas — a move that could make life harder for the millions who remain in Venezuela.

Non-governmental organizations said they had seen a significant increase in arrivals on the Colombian-Venezuelan border during August.

“On August 9 alone, we saw more than twice as many people than on an average day cross through the official border point outside Cúcuta,” said Marianne Menjivar, Colombia country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “This does not include those crossing unofficial border points.”

Many Venezuelans appeared to be trying to get to Ecuador before this weekend when the entry rules were due to tighten, she said. From next week, Venezuelans will need a visa to enter the Andean nation.

The IRC said that in the first 18 days of August, more than 46,000 people crossed the border at Cúcuta and did not return — a rate of more than 2,500 a day. Many others are likely to have entered illegally.

While Cúcuta is the main entry point into Colombia, a similar spike has been noted further north, where the number of Venezuelans coming through the Paraguachón border crossing has increased. Again, the rush to get to Ecuador seemed to be the main reason.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had seen a flood of Venezuelans reaching Ecuador this month “with peaks of 3,000 individuals entering per day during the past week.”

It said it had also seen a slight uptick in Venezuelan migration to Brazil. Last week, High Commissioner Filippo Grandi was in Brazil and described the impact of the exodus on border states as “overwhelming”.

“I was told that in some border communities, 40 per cent of patients and 80 per cent of women giving birth in hospitals are from Venezuela,” he said.

Overall, more than 4m people have left Venezuela since the country’s economic crisis started to deepen in 2015. The UNHCR says that figure could top 5m by the end of this year and the Organization of American States warns it could hit 8m by the end of 2020.

That would make the migration crisis the biggest in terms of absolute numbers anywhere in the world in recent years, dwarfing even those of Syria and the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Yet the international community has been slow to respond. At the start of this year, the UN appealed for $770m to help host communities deal with the influx of Venezuelans but has so far received just $180m.

Colombia was earmarked to receive $315m of that total but has been given less than $100m to cope with the biggest migrant influx in its history. Some 1.4m Venezuelans are living in Colombia and the vast majority have arrived in the past four years, many in a wretched state.

The Colombian government says that while the international community has stumped up $500 per migrant to deal with the crises in Syria and South Sudan, and more than $750 to help each migrant fleeing Myanmar, in Colombia the figure is just $68 per migrant.

“In other cases, the international community has been much more generous,” foreign minister Carlos Holmes said this week. “We appreciate the co-operation we’ve received but as long as the number of migrants continues to grow, so with the demand for services and resources.”

A few years ago, most Venezuelans arriving in Colombia stayed in the country but, as the crisis has intensified, they have fanned out across the region. The OAS said in June that there were at least 770,000 in Peru; 290,000 in Chile and 265,000 in Ecuador while 170,000 have fled to Brazil.

Some NGOs say the recent increase in migrant numbers might have been exacerbated by the US announcement on August 5 to impose even tougher sanctions on Venezuela. That could have persuaded some Venezuelans to leave before things get worse.

In recent months, Chile, Peru and Ecuador have tightened their entry requirements for Venezuelan migrants but so far no country in the region has closed its borders to them entirely.

“The solution to the migration crisis is not the closing of borders,” Mr Holmes said. “It is a change in Venezuela.”

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