Venezuelan refugee crisis could eclipse Syria's, economist predicts

Key Points
  • Around 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country, and the number will keep rising amid a severe shortage of food and cash, according to an economist.
  • He said the outflow will eventually overtake Syria's, which stands at 5.5 million.

Syria's civil war has resulted in what's been dubbed the world's largest refugee crisis, but another humanitarian calamity may soon surpass it.

The millions of Venezuelans fleeing their turmoil-hit nation could eventually overshadow the number of Syrian refugees, according to an economist.

"The next refugee crisis is not being driven by a violent war but by a socioeconomic disaster of magnitudes hardly seen before," Dany Bahar, a fellow at think tank the Brookings Institution, said in a Monday note, referring to the South American nation.

Feb 12, 2018: Venezuelans honor those killed during recent protests.
Román Camacho/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

About 4 million Venezuelans — over 10 percent of the population — have left the country in search of better living conditions in the last two decades, Bahar said, citing others' estimates.

In comparison, "the estimates of refugees who left Syria during the war account for about 5 million individuals," he noted. The latest United Nations data indicates there are currently 5.5 million Syrian refugees.

Bahar said he expects Venzeula's figure to increase "very rapidly" and eventually exceed that of the Middle Eastern state.

"The situation on the ground is deteriorating by the minute and the lack of food and medicine in Venezuela will probably get much worse," he said.

Venezuelans first began leaving the country in droves under the late President Hugo Chavez, but the situation intensified once President Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013. Corruption and authoritarianism under his watch have thrown the country into economic free fall. These have resulted in political persecution, a cash crunch and hyperinflation that hit the purchasing power of ordinary citizens.

Around five hundred thousand Venezuelans have left since 2016, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

"A sharp deterioration in food supply, an epidemic, or an explosion of violence" could transform human outflows into a major crisis, the Washington-based group said in a recent report, echoing Bahar's views.

IHS’ Yergin: Venezuela is ‘teetering on falling apart’
IHS’ Yergin: Venezuela is ‘teetering on falling apart’

Implications for the US

A Venezuelan refugee calamity would have security consequences for the world's largest economy.

An influx of migrants into neighboring Colombia, for example, could impose added economic and humanitarian burden on local authorities, which may undermine Bogota's peace process with former FARC guerrillas, the CFR report stated.

A refugee wave could also "hinder U.S. efforts to defeat transnational drug and criminal organizations," it continued. "Criminal organizations could abuse a large and vulnerable population for recruitment or as prey for human trafficking."

In the event of an epidemic, "mass migration would be accompanied by a health crisis across the Americas, including in the United States," it added.