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COVID-19 forces Venezuelan refugees and migrants to return to Venezuela owing to lockdowns in neighbouring countries

22 April 2020

The Venezuelan crisis is a man-made crisis, the origins of which go beyond the collapse of the economy in 2013, the drop in oil prices in 2014 and the political tailspin which followed thereafter.


The economic collapse has gravely affected an already poor healthcare system which since 2013 has been entirely neglected by the government. There is currently limited running water and insufficient medical supplies in the country. Prior to COVID-19, the lack of access to food and other essential objects became endemic with people across the country often referring to their lack of food as the “Maduro diet“. As previously analysed by GRC, food has been politicised in Venezuela through government monopoly for supply, sale and distribution. The World Food Programme estimates close to nine million currently people facing food insecurity in Venezuela.


This has culminated in a rise of preventable diseases, increases in maternal/infant mortality, lack of supplies to treat chronic conditions and serious and life-threatening diseases, leading to increased deaths. Diseases which disappeared in recent years, such as measles and diphtheria, have recently reappeared, while others such as malaria or tuberculosis, have peaked exponentially in the last years. Reports show that infant mortality rate increased by 30%, maternal mortality by 65% and cases of malaria by 76% in one year.


GRC has been working on the issue of Venezuelan crisis since 2018 and have analysed the issues of starvation and hunger, including refusal of humanitarian aid and using access to food as political tool by Venezuelan authorities from 2014 – 2019. GRC and their partner organisation, the World Peace Foundation, have explored the prospects of accountability for possible crimes against humanity for the severe deprivation of food and essential items under international criminal law (ICL). For more information on GRC work on starvation, see


Venezuela was already acutely vulnerable in being able to respond to a public health crisis following the economic collapse (which has been compounded by United States and international sanctions). The first COVID-19 cases in Venezuela were declared on 13 March 2020, rising to 285 at the time of writing. Following this and since 17 March 2020, Venezuela has imposed a nationwide lockdown and closed its borders with only humanitarian exemptions granted for returning nationals who will be forced to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine.


Prior to COVID-19, close to five million people have fled Venezuela, seeking refuge in bordering states like Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Curaçao and other Dutch Caribbean territories. UNHCR has stated this to be world’s biggest and recent displacement crises with an 8000 per cent increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide since 2014. Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have collectively received close to three million Venezuelan refugees since 2014, with an average of 11,000 Venezuelans leaving the country every day.


Amidst growing concerns of the impact of COVID-19 in Venezuela, many neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have also implemented strict lockdown measures, leaving many Venezuelan refugees without employment and many without accommodation. Owing to this change in circumstances, an abrupt reversal of migratory flows was registered last week as Venezuelans return home, only to be locked up in state mandated quarantine camps in overcrowded and squalid conditions, just as Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is set to deepen.


On 14 April 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) highlighted that:


“extraordinary problems and challenges resulting from this pandemic must be addressed through dialogue, together with regional and international cooperation that is implemented jointly, transparently and in a spirit of solidarity between all the States. Multilateralism is essential in order to coordinate regional efforts to contain the pandemic.”


Further, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (SRESCER) also released a press release on the impact the impact of COVID-19 on Venezuela and called for safeguards for the rights of Venezuelans around the Americas. It reiterates the critical situation in Venezuela with its deteriorated healthcare infrastructure, shortage of food and medical supplies, frequent widespread cuts in the supply of drinking water and electricity. They have emphatically called upon,


“Venezuelan authorities to take action aimed at protecting the right to health of all people, without discrimination and with a differentiated approach to prioritise the welfare of older adults and other groups who are particularly at risk with COVID-19, with a perspective that ensures gender equality.”


Further, they have also shown concern that some countries who host migrants are taking measures to partially or fully close their borders with Venezuela and are intensifying raids against migrants and reducing the capacity of services in charge of issuing and distributing the relevant documents. For instance, restrictions to freedom of movement have been adopted on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. These restrictions include a total border closure on the Colombian side and opening a humanitarian corridor for individuals who require medical care. In this context, the IACHR and its SRESCER have highlighted the,


“need to ensure access to healthcare for Venezuelans with chronic health problems and the need to conduct an assessment of the impact of all measures restricting border crossings for thousands of Venezuelans and Colombian-Venezuelans who used to cross the border every day to obtain their food in Colombia.”


GRC are currently analysing the effects of COVID-19 on countries facing acute food insecurity and decimated healthcare systems. GRC have published two blogs on Just Security on the effect of COVID-19 on humanitarian access in starvation-affected countries and on refugees and internally displaced persons, focussing on Syria and the Rohingya Refugees in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. They can be accessed here and here.


GRC continues to engage with a number of Venezuelan civil society organisations using GRC’s Basic Investigative Standards (BIS) App, an international humanitarian law (IHL) innovation and the first free mobile phone app designed to ensure immediate access to essential IHL and ICL expertise. The App is available for free download at Apple and Android stores by searching ‘GRC BIS’. In October 2019, GRC delivered training on the BIS with CSO representatives from Venezuela in Colombia, assisting them in the challenges they are facing documenting serious violations of international crimes.


In May 2020, GRC will begin a remote lecture series to 17 Venezuelan CSOs in partnership with The Coalition for the International Criminal Court, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Fundacion para el Debido Proceso and Case Matrix Network. GRC will deliver lectures on how the existing humanitarian crisis might meet the threshold of crimes against humanity and also how to document means of proof and evidence in order to prove starvation as a crime against humanity.


For more information on the BIS App, visit

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