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LATIN AMERICA | 23-02-2019 08:52

UN: 5,000 Venezuelans now leaving their homeland every day

Under-pressure Maduro closes nation’s airspace, border with Brazil, as rival concerts in favour and against president draw attention.

New data from the United Nations indicates that a staggering 3.4 million Venezuelans are now living outside of their homeland, with an estimated 2.7 million having left since 2015.

The figures from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) are a stark increase from December, when 2.3 million people were estimated to have fled in the last three years.

UNHCR and the UN migration agency IOM said yesterday in a joint statement that an average of 5,000 people left Venezuela every day so far this year, noting that neighbouring countries especially Colombia have taken on most of the burden. An estimated 130,000 Venezuelans are now living in Argentina. Latin America and the Caribbean currently hosts 2.7 million refugees and migrants, the UN said.

“Currently, Colombia hosts the highest number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, with over 1.1 million,” the UNHCR said in a press release. “It is followed by Peru, with 506,000, Chile 288,000, Ecuador 221,000, Argentina 130,000, and Brazil 96,000. Mexico and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean are also hosting significant numbers.”

“These figures underscore the strain on host communities and the continued need for support from the international community, at a time when the world’s attention is on political developments inside Venezuela,” Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM Special Representative for Venezuela, said in a statement.

The total number of Venezuelans living outside the country is expected to hit 5.3 million by year’s end, according to the United Nations.

“To date, Latin American countries have granted about 1.3 million residence permits and other forms of regular status to Venezuelans,” reported the UN refugee agency. “Asylum systems have also been reinforced in order to process an unprecedented number of applications. Since 2014, over 390,000 asylum claims have been lodged by Venezuelans – close to 60 per cent (232,000) happened in 2018 alone.”

RIVAL CONCERTS

Tensions continued to rise yesterday, after Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó joined thousands of his countrymen over the Colombian border on Friday for a charity concert. The show was a bid to help push for humanitarian aid deliveries in defiance of a blockade by President Maduro – as tensions over access to food turned deadly elsewhere.

In a controversial move clearly designed to provoke Maduro, Guaidó said yesterday the military had “participated” in him defying a government ban on leaving the country as he attended a charity music concert in Colombia.

“We’re here precisely because the Armed Forces participated in this process,” said Guaido, who has been recognised as Venezuela’s interim president by 50 countries.

He crossed the border in order to organise the entry of desperately needed humanitarian aid that Maduro, whose authority Guaido is challenging, has ordered the military to keep out.

Humanitarian aid has become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaidó, who has been recognised as interim leader by more than 50 countries.

The tense stand-off over aid resulted in two deaths even before the concert – and a rival one in support of Maduro – after a group of indigenous people tried to prevent Venezuelan troops from sealing unofficial pathways across the Brazilian border.

“An indigenous woman and her husband were killed and at least 15 other members of the Pemon indigenous community were injured,” said a local human rights group, Kape Kape.

The clash occurred in southeastern Bolívar state close to the border with Brazil, which Maduro ordered closed on Thursday.

Guaidó called on the military to arrest those responsible for the killings, saying “you will be responsible.”

“It wasn’t a clash, it was an attack,” said Salomon Pérez, who accompanied a brother and two nieces suffering from gunshot wounds by ambulance to a hospital in Brazil.

“People were in their community, calm. The soldiers came and started shooting at the indigenous people,” he said from Roraima state in northern Brazil.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres sternly warned Venezuelan authorities “not to use lethal force against demonstrators,” a statement said.

FLEEING SHORTAGES

Guaidó turned up unexpectedly in Cucucta on the Colombian side of the border to attend the “Venezuela Aid Live” concert organised by British entrepreneur Richard Branson in support of the opposition leader’s humanitarian aid relief plan.

Maduro’s rival concert, featuring Venezuelan and Cuban artists, began hours later just hundreds of yards away on the Venezuelan side of the border in Ureña. Maduro, who was not seen at the concert, said the event would last until Sunday.

Guaidó has set a Saturday deadline for the entry of humanitarian aid, saying as many as 300,000 Venezuelans are in dire need of food and medicines after years of shortages and malnutrition.

Maduro, who retains the support of allies China and Russia and crucially, the overwhelming majority of the powerful military, has blocked the entry of aid and accused the United States of plotting a military intervention.

On Thursday, in a dramatic escalation of bilateral relations, Maduro blocked access to aid being stockpiled in Colombia and the Caribbean island of Curaçao, as well as taking the decision to block the border with Brazil.

He also temporarily shutdown national airspace in Venezuela to foreign planes.

Maduro said the land border with Brazil would be “completely and absolutely” closed from 8pm “until further notice,” following a meeting with the military high command, on Thursday.

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