U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2006 - Venezuela



Refoulement/Physical Protection

There were no reports of refoulement. The Venezuelan Constitution guaranteed the right to asylum. A 2003 Presidential Decree regulated the implementation of the 2001 Organic Law on Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Organic Refugee Law) in accordance with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Refugee legislation prohibited refoulement and there were no official reports of any in 2005. In 2004, the National Refugee Commission (NRC) installed a technical secretariat in the Capital and three regional ones at the border states of Tachira, Apure, and Zulia. They were not yet operational.

Asylum seekers registered through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partner agencies, or through the technical secretariats. UNHCR or its partner agencies conducted preliminary interviews and submitted applications to NRC, which then called and interviewed applicants. The Organic Refugee Law allowed applicants to request and receive legal counsel from UNHCR and other human rights organizations. NRC decided the asylum cases and UNHCR participated with voice but no vote.

The interview process was slow, particularly for asylum seekers outside Caracas. The Organic Refugee Law required NRC to decide cases within 90 days, but it generally took about 6 months. It technically had to give reasons for denials, but generally did not do so.

Applicants had 15 working days to appeal negative decisions, and NRC had 90 days to rule on them. NRC received 17 appeal cases in 2005. Asylum seekers could also submit their cases to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice for reconsideration if the appeal failed.

According to NRC, about 1,900 persons applied for asylum during the year. NRC decided about 200 cases, covering about 500 persons, and about 200 won asylum. In June, 62 Colombians took refuge in an indigenous settlement of the Barí community in Zulia state. In September, after negotiations with Barí leaders who wanted the asylum seekers to leave, NRC transported them by helicopter to another location.

NRC reported the voluntary repatriation of 15 registered Colombian asylum seekers. About 30 refugees resettled to Sweden, Spain, and Australia.

The operational capacity of NRC and the technical secretariats remained low as reflected by the slow pace of the interview and documentation processes, the low numbers of registered asylum seekers, and the backlog of applications pending (about 83 percent), including some cases submitted in 2001. In addition, NRC had not yet adopted its rules of internal procedures.

Officially, Venezuela hosted about 5,100 refugees and asylum seekers, but UNHCR put the number of "persons of concern" at 270,000. The presence of Colombian armed insurgents in the Venezuelan border areas, the increasing militarization of the Venezuelan side of the border (about 22,000 men deployed), and general hostility toward Colombians crossing the border deterred many Colombian refugees from seeking protection.

During 2004 and the beginning of 2005, the Government implemented the Regularization and Naturalization Decree, which granted permanent residence to about 370,000 aliens, including many Colombians in need of international protection. It carried the program out primarily in urban areas and did not reach dispersed populations of concern in border areas. Many also could not meet the requirements of proof of residence and judicial record checks in Venezuela and Colombia.

Military authorities announced additional screening by Interpol and Venezuelan intelligence forces into the backgrounds of asylum seekers. The Law guaranteed the confidentiality of information provided during the asylum process, but in June, soldiers, acting on orders of the Military Intelligence Office, interrogated Colombian asylum seekers in the absence of the local district attorney. They did not explain the reason for the questioning and did not allow human rights advocates to participate.

Detention/Access to Courts

There were no confirmed cases of detention of refugees, but there were some reported cases of arbitrary detention and extortion of undocumented asylum seekers.

The Organic Refugee Law prohibited punishing refugees for illegal entry. It also stated that refugees must submit their asylum cases "without delay" once they were in the national territory. NRC issued asylum seekers monthly renewable provisional identification documents, which allowed them to remain in the territory until it made final decisions on their request for asylum.

Although the Organic Refugee Law required NRC to issue the identification cards upon receipt of the applications, it generally did not do so until completion of the interviews. UNHCR estimated that about 58 percent of registered asylum seekers had such identification cards and issued provisional certificates to those awaiting documentation. Asylum seekers complained that the police often confiscated or destroyed these certificates.

Refugees received transit visas, which the Ministry of Interior and Justice could prolong yearly, and Venezuelan identity cards which cost about $60. Refugees living in Venezuela for five consecutive years could apply for citizenship. Recognized refugees enjoyed all rights recognized by the Constitution applying to aliens in general.

According to the Constitution and the Organic Law on the Protection of Constitutional Rights and Guarantees, all persons were entitled access to the judicial system. The Government, however, did not provide legal assistance to refugees and the Courts moved slowly. UNHCR and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided legal counseling on an ad hoc basis. UNHCR, NRC, the Venezuelan Red Cross, and local NGOs also provided training on refugee protection to members of the police, and the military and civilian authorities.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

There were no refugee camps in Venezuela. Refugees and asylum seekers could move about freely and reside where they chose, but they had to notify NRC of their residence and any change of address. A decision by NRC also required asylum seekers to renew provisional identification every 30 days, through the same local migration office. Some registered asylum seekers without documentation could not travel to other parts of the country because of fear of detention or police extortion.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Venezuela allowed recognized refugees to work, to run businesses, to practice professions, and to own and transfer property. They also enjoyed the protection of labor laws if they could afford to buy a Venezuelan identity card. The cards were also necessary to get driver's licenses and to open bank accounts. Most refugees worked in the informal sector where labor laws and protections were not enforced and refugees generally received lower pay than native workers did. Venezuela did not allow asylum seekers to work at all, and most worked illegally in the informal sector.

Public Relief and Education

Recognized refugees enjoyed public assistance on par with nationals. UNHCR and its partner agencies provided limited health services and emergency shelters. Refugees and asylum seekers also benefited from the Government's education, health, and food security missions.

According to the Constitution and the 1980 Education Act, every person had a right to education, without distinction between citizens and non-citizens. The Organic Refugee Law stated that children could use refugee documentation to attend school. In addition, a 2003 resolution by the Ministry of Education required public schools to admit children without identity documents. Asylum seekers could attend public schools up to the secondary level, but undocumented asylum seekers could not obtain official transcripts of approved courses. UNHCR and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) funded rural health centers, mobile health clinics, and a specialized healthcare center in San Cristobal in Táchira state for surgeries and emergency cases. This benefited refugees, as well as the hosting communities.

Since 2003, UNHCR's Community Support and Integration Program along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, in partnership with Caritas Venezuela and JRS, carried out 263 projects benefiting more that 60,000 persons in 67 towns. Projects included micro-credit schemes for small businesses, infrastructure, and restoration of basic services. Refugees and asylum seekers could also benefit from free adult educational support and technical training programs sponsored by the Government.


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