U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - Venezuela



Refoulement/Physical Protection

The Government deported at least 15 indigenous Wayúu from Colombia who were of concern to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for working illegally, possibly in cooperation with their employers to avoid contract obligations.

Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries, together with the Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación (FBL), a Venezuelan irregular armed group, exercised de facto control over the border states of Táchira, Apure, and Zulia, where most Colombian asylum seekers arrived. Kidnappings, contract killings, forced recruitment, and arms smuggling were common in the border areas. During the year, about 250 asylum seekers in Zulia and four asylum-seeking families in Apure fled to Caracas due to death threats by armed groups in the border area; one asylum seeker was reportedly shot upon arrival in Caracas.

In July, a Venezuelan soldier tortured and killed a seven-member refugee family in the border village of La Victoria, in Alto Apure state, and burned their bodies. In October, Colombian leftist irregulars publicly executed one and forcibly displaced some 100 others (32 families), including refugees and nationals, from the Santa Ines Village of Apure, on the western border with Colombia. About one week later, 25 families from Caño Gaitan fled fighting between Colombian rebels after they assassinated two Venezuelan nurses.

In April, the Government granted temporary protection status (TPS) to 56 indigenous Wayúu, who fled paramilitary violence in Colombia's Guajira department. They returned to Colombia after the violence subsided. TPS was valid for 90 days, and renewable depending on protection needs.

Venezuela was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees but it was to its 1967 Protocol, which incorporated most of the Convention's rights. It reserved, however, the right to favor other foreigners over refugees through regional and sub-regional agreements and exempted itself from the Protocol's dispute resolution provision. The 1999 Constitution provided that human rights treaties the country ratified were higher sources of authority than national laws and on par with the Constitution itself. The Constitution also expressly recognized and guaranteed the right of asylum and refuge and required the National Assembly to enact a refugee law conforming to the Constitution and international agreements to which Venezuela was party. A 2003 Presidential Decree implemented the 2001 Law on Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Refugee Law). The National Refugee Commission (NRC) handled applications and decided cases. Asylum seekers registered through UNHCR and partner agencies, or through the technical secretariats of the NRC in Caracas and the border states of Táchira, Zulia, and Apure. UNHCR offered legal assistance to asylum seekers and participated in the eligibility sessions but could not vote. During the year, the NRC began providing failed asylum seekers with specific reasons for denying status.

Denied applicants could appeal to the NRC within 15 working days of notification, and the latter had 90 days to rule on them. In 2006, the NRC received 28 appeals. If the appeals failed, applicants could seek judicial review by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

The NRC received about 1,550 asylum cases in 2006 covering about 3,700 individuals, 97 percent of them Colombian. It decided some 190 cases, (about 460 applicants) and granted refugee status to about 240 individuals, with about 7,750 waiting for decisions at year's end.

According to the Refugee Law, the NRC had 90 days to decide asylum cases but the process generally took over a year. The technical secretariat in Zulia carried out missions to register, interview, and deliver documents to asylum applicants in remote communities at the border.

Venezuela recognized some 8,500 refugees and asylum seekers at year's end, but UNHCR and others estimated some 200,000 other Colombians to be of concern. Most did not register, as they were not aware of their rights and because of intimidation by armed irregular groups in the border areas who often persecuted asylum seekers they accused of supporting rival armed groups. Three asylum seekers in Machiques (Zulia state) complained that rightwing demobilized Colombian paramilitary groups, with the aid of members of the Venezuelan armed forces, persecuted asylum applicants they labeled as guerrilla suspects. Many asylum seekers in remote border communities did not go to the technical secretariats to apply for asylum either for lack of means, fear of security checkpoints along the road, and risk of detention, extortion, or deportation due to their illegal presence.

Between 300,000 and 600,000 Colombians benefited from the regularization program, Misión Identidad, in urban centers, but most refugees and asylum seekers were in rural areas, and many lack documentation the program required such as proofs of clean criminal records and prolonged residence. Sweden resettled 15 Colombians and Canada 10. There were no registered cases of voluntary repatriations.

Detention/Access to Courts

There were no reports of detention of refugees or asylum seekers for illegal entry, presence, or for exercising their rights, but human rights organizations aiding refugees reported cases of arbitrary detention of the undocumented at police checkpoints for up to three hours in the sun.

The Ministry of Interior and Justice issued one-year renewable transit visas and Venezuelan identity cards to recognized refugees at no cost. Although the Refugee Law required the NRC to issue asylum cards upon application, UNHCR estimated that only 40 percent of applicants had received them. UNHCR issued provisional certificates on behalf of undocumented asylum seekers, but authorities often did not recognize their validity, sometimes retaining or destroying them. Members of the National Guard, the branch of the military responsible for monitoring borders and enforcing the law in remote areas, systematically extorted asylum seekers without documentation, including sexually harassing women and children.

The Constitution and the 2004 Law of the Protection of Constitutional Rights and Guarantees granted all individuals access to the judicial system, but there was a shortage of public defenders and trial delays were common. UNHCR, Caritas Venezuela, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and Andres Bello University in Caracas offered legal counseling to refugees and asylum seekers on an ad hoc basis.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

There were no camps, and refugees and asylum seekers enjoyed freedom of movement and choice of residence, but the Government required asylum seekers to renew their provisional documentation every month through the same local migration office.

Undocumented asylum seekers in the border area refrained from traveling to other provinces in order to avoid detention and extortion at army and police checkpoints.

The Constitution extended to all its rights to freedom of movement, choice of residence, exit and reentry to the national territory, and movement of goods within, into, or out of the country.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Venezuela allowed recognized refugees to work, to run businesses, and to practice professions, and gave them protection under its labor laws. According to the Refugee Law, refugee cards were valid for work without additional permits. The law did not permit asylum seekers to work, and the majority worked illegally in the informal sector.

An estimated 25,000 unregistered Colombian ethnic Wayúu worked illegally in cattle farms in Machiques State. According to local human rights organizations, employers often forced them to work long hours in precarious conditions, and threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they complained.

Refugees and foreign residents required Venezuelan identity cards to get drivers licenses, open bank accounts, and own and transfer properties. Asylum seekers were not eligible for such cards.

The Constitution extended to "all persons" its right to work and labor protections and to "every person" its rights to property.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees and asylum seekers enjoyed public assistance and health services on par with citizens. Those in the country with temporary protection status could obtain humanitarian assistance from the National Civil Protection Office.

All minors could attend public schools regardless of their legal status. The Refugee Law stated that refugee documentation was sufficient for refugee children to attend school. Undocumented refugees and asylum seekers could attend public schools but did not receive transcripts or diplomas.

The Government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies assisting refugees. In July, flooding in the village of Guasdualito (Alto Apure State) affected nearly 12,000 people, including 80 refugee families. UNHCR, together with the Civil Protection, Caritas Venezuela, and JRS, provided food and medicine and helped repair damaged houses. UNHCR and JRS provided limited health services to refugees and asylum seekers and funded mobile health clinics in rural communities that served refugees and nationals alike.

Refugees and asylum seekers benefited from special health, education, and school feeding programs sponsored by the Government. UNHCR, Caritas Venezuela, JRS, and the Financing Cooperative for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise implemented a program of small loans for income-generating projects for refugees and asylum seekers living in border communities in Tachira, Zulia, and Apure. According to UNHCR, "the purpose of the loans varies from buying a sewing machine, to setting up a small shop or buying seeds and tools for a farm."

The Constitution extended to all its right to free health services and free and continuous education up to the university level.


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