Venezuela hosted 160 refugees, mostly from Chile, Nicaragua, and Colombia. During 1998, 20 persons applied to UNHCR for refugee status. The agency recognized three as refugees and rejected 17. More than 60,000 Colombians were living in Venezuela in refugee-like circumstances.
Venezuela has acceded to the 1967 UN Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, but has not enacted implementing legislation. Persons seeking asylum in Venezuela apply to UNHCR, which extends mandate recognition to those with valid claims.
At the end of 1998, UNHCR recognized only 20 Colombians in Venezuela as refugees. But the agency acknowledged that there were many other Colombians living in Venezuela who might qualify as refugees. According to UNHCR, "The broad majority of Colombians [in Venezuela] fleeing individual persecution or generalized violence in their country...prefer to stay anonymous in order to avoid stigmatization and discrimination."
An estimated 1.5 million Colombians live in Venezuela. Most are economic migrants who moved there during the now vanished oil boom of the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, many Colombians have migrated to Venezuela primarily because of the political violence in their home country. Most seek to remain anonymous and integrate with the established Colombian migrant population in Venezuela. They do so out of fear that if they identify themselves as refugees, they might be deported to Colombia. Assessing their number is, therefore, difficult.
The Zulian Institute for Frontier Studies conducted a study of the Colombian population living in the Venezuelan states bordering Colombia. It concluded that only about two to four percent of the 300,000 Colombians there moved to Venezuela primarily because of the violence in Colombia. If a similar percentage of all Colombians in Venezuela moved there for that reason, their number would be a maximum of about 60,000. Although this is a speculative figure, it is the only known estimate. USCR considers these people to be living in Venezuela in "refugee-like circumstances."
Most of the Colombians whom USCR considers to be in refugee-like circumstances live in the states of Zulia, Tachira, Merida, Barinas, Apure, and Amazonas. According to UNHCR, one of their main problems is the "lack of migratory documentation to remain legally in the country." Lack of such documentation makes individuals vulnerable to "administrative detention" by the Venezuelan authorities. It also makes it difficult for them to move within the country, including to travel to Caracas, the capital, to apply for refugee status.
Children born in Venezuela to undocumented Colombians, including those in refugee-like circumstances, often become stateless. Under Venezuelan law, all children born in the country are entitled to Venezuelan citizenship. But local Civil Register Offices (CROs) often prevent Colombians from registering their new-born children. In August 1998, Venezuela's Supreme Court reaffirmed this position and ordered the CROs to register all children. In October, the Venezuelan government also issued a decree to that effect. At year's end, it was unclear if local CROs would comply. In any case, a large number of children born to Colombians in Venezuela are already de facto stateless because of the CROs' practice during recent years.
Colombians who have sought safe haven in Venezuela sometimes also find that the problems they fled follow them into Venezuela. Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups regularly cross into Venezuela and kidnap people for ransom, although the number of such kidnappings dropped from 23 in 1997 to 10 in 1998.
The Venezuelan security forces have responded to border violence and kidnappings by stationing some 10,000 soldiers along the border. The Venezuelan government has suspended civil liberties and placed most of the border areas under military control. According to Venezuelan human rights groups, the Venezuelan military abuses the human rights not only of Colombians, but also of Venezuelan civilians. They arbitrarily detain, and even torture, residents of these special military zones.
Armed encounters and general violence in the border region, as well as economic hardships in Venezuela, have sometimes contributed to reverse flows of Colombians. According to the Jesuit Refugee Service, "Colombian peasants are crossing the border in both directions, fleeing from the threats they feel more acute at each moment."