Venezuela’s Jesuit Centro Gumilla recently published an article denouncing that the Plan Patria Segura (Secure Homeland Plan) is being used to round up undocumented immigrants in poor barrios of Caracas and eventually deport them. The Plan Patria Segura puts heavily armed soldiers without civilian police training in the streets to ensure citizen security.
The author, Fr. Alfredo Infante has worked with immigrants and refugees in many Latin American countries. He narrates the stories of several families standing outside the SAIME (Servicio Administrativo de Identificacion, Migracion y Extranjeria, the government Agency for Identity and Immigration Services) building where a bus of the National Bolivarian Guard was parked and protected by heavily armed agents. Inside the bus were one Peruvian and seventeen afro-Colombian immigrants waiting for their fate to be decided.
Their relatives, mainly women and children from Petare, one of Caracas’ largest barrios, explained that the roundups took place in busy areas, such as outside the Metro station or close to a restaurant serving Colombian food in their neighborhood.
They also claimed that those detained were not fed, could not take showers, and were not given any information about the procedures to follow. Although the number of immigrants being deported through these roundups is unknown, Infante suggests that this situation shows that there is a “re-emergence of xenophobia promoted by the authorities.”
Venezuela is a country with an important historical tradition of hosting immigrants from all over the world—from neighboring countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, as well as from Europe, mainly from Spain, Italy and Portugal. More recently, the country has seen the arrival of a great number of Caribbean citizens, mostly from Cuba and Haiti, making it South America’s second largest receiving country.
Venezuela is also the home of approximately 185,000 refugees who fled Colombia’s armed conflict. It is also important to remember that Venezuela welcomed thousands of refugees from the Southern cone during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s. The 2011 national census revealed that 4.2% of the country’s population is foreign born. The country’s economy, its culture and demographics have been heavily and positively impacted by immigration.
Venezuela’s immigration and asylum system is far from perfect. The border with Colombia is a complex conflict zone where refugees and immigrants are affected directly by the political tensions and difficult relationship between both countries. Many immigrants lack access to employment, social services and the path to regularizing their legal status when undocumented.
Nevertheless, Venezuela has rightly been praised for having a progressive immigration law. At a time when most countries in the region, from Mexico to Ecuador, are building expensive, inefficient–and sometimes inhuman—detention systems to hold immigrants, Venezuela explicitly forbids the detention of immigrants.
Moreover, some social programs, such as “Misión Identidad”, have created fast-track mechanisms to support the regularization of thousands of previously unauthorized immigrants. In border areas, many of the benefits of the “misiones” are often extended to foreigners, mainly from Colombia.
While many argue that such programs are politically motivated, one must acknowledge the social benefits for a highly vulnerable group. And to be fair, in most countries, reforms to immigration systems usually respond to careful political calculations.
All countries have the sovereign right to deport foreign citizens that are in their territory illegally. But this must be done respecting due process and basic standards of human rights. These standards are put in jeopardy when the armed forces are called on to implement immigration policies.
Carolina Jiménez is a Program Officer at the Open Society Foundations’ International Migration Initiative and the Latin American Program. The views expressed are her own.