With over 4 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees around the world, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has resulted in one of the largest migration exoduses in the history of Latin America.
Since 2014, there has been an 8,000% increase in Venezuelans seeking refugee status, with the most recent estimate being 650,000 applicants worldwide, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The UNHCR states that the majority of people leaving Venezuela are in need of international protection.
In 2019, applications filed by first-time asylum seekers from Venezuela increased 102% (22,600) in the European Union. While the majority of those fleeing from the political, economic and social turmoil seek refuge in neighboring countries, Spain is seeing a continuing rise in Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Data from the International Organization of Migration shows that as of 2019, 323,575 Venezuelan immigrants live in Spain. In 2019, 40,305 asylum applications were filed by Venezuelans in Spain. However, only 50 Venezuelans were granted refugee status that same year, according to Eurostat.
Due to colonization, Venezuela shares history, language and cultural aspects with Spain — an important factor in understanding why so many Venezuelans have chosen to seek refuge here. Still others have direct familial ties. According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute, about half of Venezuelans in Spain already have a Spanish passport — often because of grandparents who fled to Venezuela during Franco’s regime.
However, while Venezuela was once the country offering refuge, violence, food shortages and failing infrastructure has now forced millions of people to leave.
“We have one of the [worst] refugee crises in the world right now with almost 5 million migrants and refugees — it just hasn’t hit Europe the worst,” says Venezuelan migrant Ricardo Delgado. The 23-year-old Migracode student calls himself, and others from Venezuela who have made it to Spain, the “lucky ones.”
Currently, Migracode has 10 students who are originally from Venezuela, the largest representation of any single country in the program to date. While each student has a unique perspective and migration story, they share a collective experience with each other and with the 4 million other Venezuelans who have fled one of the least talked about humanitarian crises.
Oil and Corruption Create a Complex Crisis
A report from U.S.-based think tank the Wilson Center notes that the crisis in Venezuela has not received sufficient international attention or funding because it “defies the conventional understanding of what drives people to leave their country en masse.”
Venezuela’s economy is highly dependent on the exportation of oil. While the price of oil reached record highs under former President Hugo Chavez, it fell drastically when Nicolás Maduro assumed the presidency in 2013. However, while the global value of oil has made a modest recovery, oil production in Venezuela has crashed due to mismanagement and political corruption.
“Venezuela is militarized, the military is in every government position,” Alejandro Sanchez, 24, says. “There is military on the streets… The current regime has total control of government positions: the judges, the institution that prepares the elections, the army… basically they are the owners of the country.”
He adds that the government officials make the illegal, legal.
Venezuela’s reliance on exporting oil has caused the economy and GDP to significantly decline. A 2018 estimate found 94% of the population lived below the poverty line. Furthermore, a 2019 analysis by research group CENDA calculated that the minimum wage was only worth 4.59 euros a month.
Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is marked by food and medicine shortages, lack of access to public infrastructure, devalued currency and human rights abuses.
“For people our age, it’s almost impossible to grow as a professional,” Delgado says. He notes the lack of access to operational necessities such as the internet and foreign currency as a hindrance to business.
This lack of enterprise opportunity was a driving force behind Thony Nava’s decision to leave. After he turned 18, Nava, now 25, moved several times, living in Buenos Aires, Bogota, Seoul and Santiago de Chile.
Venezuela’s economic collapse has affected all areas of daily life. Nava says the country lacks the proper infrastructure for businesses to grow.
An example of this: From January to May 2019, there were an average of 158 power failures nationwide, according to the Wilson Center. Four major blackouts that year left the majority of the country without power for multiple days.
Rubén Adarme, 29, knows firsthand how destructive power failures and blackouts can be. While living in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, he helped manage his mother’s family’s farm in the countryside. Adarme began saving money to start his own business — he wanted “to have something of my own.”
However, after spending his savings on a shipment of milk and cheese to start his business, a blackout occurred that lasted for a week, spoiling almost all of his supply.
“I lost almost everything from my savings and I wasn’t able to recover because of the economy,” he says. “I decided to come here with the very little I had left.”
Water rationing is also an issue. An investigation by Prodavinci found that from 2016 to 2017, 9.78 million people had their water rationed. On average, they received water only two days a week. Furthermore, 23% of households did not have access to clean drinking water.
“I had almost three years without water in my apartment, so I had to go to my parents house to get a shower,” 36-year-old Migracode student Alexei Garbán, says.
When it comes to food, high prices and inconsistent access has led to a significant increase in undernourishment in the past few years. For a family of five living on minimum wage, they would only have enough to buy 2.8% of basic food needed.
For example, the average price for a whole chicken in Caracas is 14,600,000 bolivares, roughly 36 euros. According to a 2020 study by the UN, 59% of Venezuelan households don’t have enough money to buy food. The UN Security Council recently warned that food insecurity in Venezuela, and other countries, could cause famine of “biblical proportions.”
With a collapsing economy, high levels of political corruption and a fight for resources, extreme forms of violence can be a daily occurrence.
Twenty-four-year-old Anandamaya Arnó says that she was twice robbed at gunpoint in Caracas. Similarly, Garbán recalls the multiple death threats he and his wife received. “We had a car and motorcycles… people wanted to kidnap us.”
Many of Migracode’s Venezuelan students chose Spain because they had family or close friends already living here.
For Arnó, medical treatments her father requires are unavailable in Venezuela. Since her sister was already living in Barcelona, Arnó, her father and her boyfriend, fellow Migracode student Sanchez, decided to move to Spain for the necessary treatments.
However, moving to Barcelona is not easy or cheap. Getting the necessary paperwork for a visa requires a lot of money and time — and there’s no guarantee the visa will be approved. With time being of the essence, Arnó and Sanchez couldn’t wait months to gather paperwork or pay the under the table fee to get documents apostilled and sent to the consulate faster.
“Basically, the only option that we had was to come here as a tourist and become asylum seekers… and start our lives again” Sanchez says. “We were able to do that thanks to my sister in law, she helped us with the money to [buy] the plane ticket and with a place to live here in Spain.”
When traveling as a tourist from Venezuela to Spain, proof of sufficient funds and a return flight is required at the border point of entry. One student (whose name is withheld due to his immigration status) explained that he borrowed money from a friend to show sufficient funds, then returned the money and stayed in the country.
“A lot of people I know have done this,” he says.
For students who entered Spain as tourists, requesting asylum is necessary in order to legally stay. While some students had their asylum claims approved, others were rejected, and instead given “humanitarian residency.” The residency permit allows those who have been denied asylum to remain in Spain on humanitarian grounds.
However, other Venezuelan students were fortunate enough to already hold Spanish passports and citizenship through their families, like Garbán.
Life in Spain
Many Migracode students send money to their families back in Venezuela, helping support parents, siblings and extended family. Arno sends money back to her mother and brother to help cover their basic living expenses; Adarme also sends money back to his family, as do Nava and Sanchez.
However, sending remittances isn’t always easy, as finding lucrative work and making enough to be able to afford sending money back can be difficult for anyone, especially migrants and refugees.
“I have tried to help [my parents and grandparents] by sending money, but… it’s impossible to save some money to send them,” Nava, who moved here with his wife and dog, says. He explains that working as a delivery rider and making the required autonoma payments doesn’t leave him with much extra money after his own household expenses.
“I have sent something, but I feel bad that I can’t send more money.”
However, it’s not just money that is needed.
Scarcity of medicine is an issue that Delgado says isn’t talked about enough. “Every one of us will probably tell you something about having to send [medicine] to Venezuela, even if our families are doing okay.”
Despite the struggles that they face, Migracode’s Venezuelan students believe they have better opportunities here.
“It’s not as hard to have a decent life here,” Delgado says. “And, I don’t feel like I’m going to get stabbed in every dark corner, so that’s good.”
Furthermore, the feeling of safety and security that Spain offers — and its Catalan capital city, Barcelona — is not forgotten.
“[Barcelona] is incredible,” Arnó says. “The simple fact of having [running] water is incredible. Also… I know that I will always be guaranteed to have food to buy in the supermarket.”
However, while Spain and Venezuela do share a language and have historical connections, some cultural differences have required getting used to.
“Venezuela is very conservative in comparison to Spain,” Adarme says. “It is always kind of shocking to see how people kiss here in the public way. Let me be clear, I’m not judging and I know it is normal here, but for me it always [catches] me off guard.”
A Future in Barcelona
For most students, the possibility of returning to Venezuela is slim. Many say that unless there is a permanent change in the current regime, Spain will be their new, permanent home.
Esteban Medina, 50, says he originally left Venezuela in the ‘90s because the country “as a whole was in a downward path.” Following some time spent living in the U.S., and later Uruguay, Medina moved to Barcelona because he wanted to experience life in a Spanish city. Now, seven years later, he’s welcomed his daughter to Barcelona from Uruguay.
“I plan to be beside her until she’s an adult,” he says.
However, while some are comfortable staying in Spain permanently, others note that they never really wanted to leave Venezuela in the first place.
“It was a really difficult situation,“ Sanchez says. “The [truth] is that I really didn’t want to leave Venezuela. The current government stole [from] us any kind of opportunity to have a normal life. I just left Venezuela in search of a normal life.”
He adds that life in Venezuela is not what he wants for him or his family. Both he and Arno share the intention of bringing their families to Spain — a goal made more possible by their coding education and employability training from Migracode.
While many Migracode students hold degrees from universities in their home countries, they’re not always valid or have an equivalent in Spain. For instance, Adarme attended university to study a field related to veterinary medicine, however, his specific field of study is unique to Venezuela.
Being unable to use his degree in Spain, Adarme says he felt “lost and without a plan.”
In order to succeed in their new home countries, migrants and refugees must be provided access to resources that encourage and further their inclusion and integration in the society. At Migracode, providing a free coding course to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is crucial to increasing employability among historically marginalized groups in the tech industry.
“I’m eternally grateful for everything [Migracode has] done for me and my fellow migrants, not only from Venezuela,” Delgado says. “I hope I’m able to give back in the future.”