Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2017, 13:52 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Venezuela

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Venezuela , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Venezuela hosted 1,100 refugees and asylum seekers in 2002; almost all of them Colombians whose asylum claims were pending at year's end. Asylum applications from Colombians increased more than five-fold. Of the 58 individuals with refugee status in Venezuela, 21 were Colombians; the remainders were Haitians, Cubans, Chinese, persons from the former Yugoslavia, and nationals of various other countries. At least 50,000 to 75,000 Colombians – perhaps many more – lived in Venezuela in refugee-like circumstances.

Venezuela is a party to the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol. Since 1999, the Venezuelan government began receiving asylum applications, which were previously handled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2001, Venezuela enacted the Organic Law on Asylum and Refugees, but had not implemented it as of the end of 2002. Consequently, the more than 1,000 individuals who have applied for asylum in Venezuela since 1999 remain in limbo, with none of their claims adjudicated. While their asylum claims remain pending, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) considers these persons to be refugees.

In late 2001, UNHCR said that it was "unclear whether the [Venezuelan] government has the political will to make the ... new organic refugee law operational." On several occasions during 2002, the Venezuelan authorities told UNHCR that they planned to implement the law and that they would soon set up the Eligibility Commission to determine asylum claims, but by year's end had not done so.

Besides establishing asylum determination procedures, the Organic Refugee Law would commit Venezuela not to impose sanctions on asylum seekers for "irregular entry" and not to forcibly return any individual to a territory where his or her life would be endangered. Because Venezuela has not implemented the law, its military and border officials continue to treat asylum seekers as they do any other migrants. According to UNHCR, "asylum seekers with irregular migration status are thus likely to be indiscriminately deported in contradiction with international and national refugee law."

Since 2000, large groups of Colombians have fled to Venezuela seeking refuge, and Venezuelan authorities have promptly returned them. The largest known group of Colombians to have sought refuge in 2002 – an estimated 3,000 people – entered Venezuela through the town of La Grita, in Tachira state, on February 27. Venezuelan authorities returned the group to Colombia the following day. The Venezuelan authorities did not provide UNHCR access to the group.

Colombians in Refugee-Like Circumstances

No reliable data exist regarding the number of Colombians who may have sought refuge in Venezuela, but not applied for asylum. Some of these Colombians in refugee-like circumstances enter with special border permits that enable them to remain legally in Venezuela for one year. They generally settle inconspicuously among the 1.5 million economic migrants from Colombia who have lived in Venezuela since the 1970's oil boom. Most lack documentation, which makes them vulnerable to detention and deportation by the Venezuelan authorities.

In 2002, UNHCR began a study to assess the number of Colombians in Venezuela who might be refugees. Preliminary findings that the number of Colombian children in Venezuelan schools in border areas of Zulia state increased by 69 percent between 1999 and 2002 suggest a substantial increase in the overall Colombian population in the state during that time period.

Political Upheaval in Venezuela

Turbulent political developments in Venezuela in 2002 led a small number of senior Venezuelan government and military officials to flee the country and prompted many other Venezuelans to migrate to the United States and elsewhere, but did not lead to significant refugee flows or internal displacement.

The problems began in December 2001, when President Hugo Chavez, a leftist former military officer who was elected in late 1998, enacted a decree that introduced land reforms and tightened the government's control over the oil industry. On April 11, Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of some 500,000 protestors, killing 18 and wounding 150 others. This led senior military officers to force President Chavez to resign. Chavez supporters rioted, resulting in additional deaths. The interim government collapsed and Chavez returned to power on April 14.

A number of high-ranking Venezuelan government and military officials who participated in or supported the failed coup, including the country's minister of foreign affairs, sought asylum in the United States and Colombia or in the Bolivian and Salvadoran embassies in Caracas. Thousands of other Venezuelans who were concerned about Chavez' policies migrated to other countries, particularly the United States.

(In February 2003, Chavez forced an end to a general strike launched in December and arrested Venezuela's top opposition leader – a move condemned by human rights groups in Venezuela and abroad and by some governments.)

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