Refugee exodus from Venezuela washes up on Spanish shores

Nearly 4,000 Venezuelans petitioned Spain for asylum last year, surpassing Ukrainians and Syrians. But in the absence of war in Venezuela, most of those applications will likely be rejected.

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde
Eglee Torres, a Venezuelan who moved to Pamplona in 2007, counsels Hector Garcia, who arrived in July and is in the process of filing an asylum petition with the Red Cross and the Spanish police, Aug. 21. He says Ms. Torres is known locally as 'the Venezuelan who helps Venezuelans.' Eglee Torres has turned her house into a collection center, where she sends medicine to Venezuelans at home and provides items to those Venezuelans arriving in Spain. A report released this month shows that Venezuelans have become the largest group seeking asylum in Spain, surpassing Syrians and Ukrainians.

When he was a boy growing up in Venezuela, Hector Garcia dreamed of opening a supermarket. While most kids balk at accompanying their parents doing errands, he loved walking between aisles of fresh produce and dairy products.

Even when food shortages put supermarkets at the center of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela – and he himself lost about 40 pounds – Mr. Garcia continued his university classes in business administration and accounting with an eye toward opening his own business.

But he was also active in student protests against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chavez and has continued his “Bolivarian Revolution” but with an authoritarian grip that’s been widely condemned abroad. And amid fears for his life and liberty, Garcia left everything behind – including his parents and little sister – in July and fled to Spain.

Now Garcia, who is using a pseudonym, is in the process of applying for asylum in Pamplona, Spain, where he moved in with a friend’s sister and hardly a euro to his name.

"The stress builds up, whether it's concern about food or crime,” says Garcia, a bespectacled 25-year-old whose voice trembles when he speaks. Today he barely resembles the photo on his résumé taken a few years earlier, when he weighed 187 pounds and frequented a gym. “But it is hard to leave your land, everything you know and everyone you love. It weighs on you heavily, to know that you might be fine, but your family might not be.”

Garcia joins a growing exodus of Venezuelans amid severe food and medicine shortages, arbitrary detentions and militarization, official corruption, and impunity under Mr. Maduro that has been decried by foreign governments – including Spain and the United States – and international human rights groups.

According to data from the Spanish Commission of Aid for Refugees (CEAR), Venezuelans have become the largest group of nationals seeking asylum in the country in 2016, surpassing those from war-torn Syria and Ukraine. The claims trace the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, with nearly 4,000 petitions last year, up from 596 in Spain in 2015, 124 in 2014, and just 35 in 2013.

Venezuelans are heading to Colombia and other Latin American countries in the highest numbers. But those who can are fleeing to the US and Europe, to find jobs, often illegally, cleaning homes, washing dishes, driving taxis, and caring for the elderly.

After the crisis heightened under Maduro in 2014, emigration picked up. In Portugal, it was mostly among those Venezuelans with Portuguese ties, says Christian Hohn, the president of Venexos, which helps Venezuelans in Portugal and abroad. “Now it’s Venezuelan Venezuelans,” he says. “Week after week we are seeing new faces.”

The exodus amounts to a brain drain that will put huge pressures on Venezuela in the future. Many of those leaving are professionals. Of Garcia’s closest childhood friends, all eight are now abroad: five in Spain, and the other three in Chile, the US, and Britain.

Yet he says in a sense he considers them lucky – many of the students with whom he protested against Maduro’s administration are in jail.

Eglee Torres, who runs the Association of Venezuelans in Navarra and is helping Garcia file his asylum claim, says that in reality the Spanish state rejects their cases, so most Venezuelans work illegally and just get by. “The Spanish government denounces what is going on in Venezuela,” she says, but since the crisis is not classified as war, Venezuelans aren't considered refugees. “What is going on in Venezuela is a silent war,” she says.

Her organization sends medical aid to Venezuela and organizes drives for items, especially winter attire needed by those newly arrived. Her home in Pamplona is so packed with donations – and volunteers coming to drop items off – that it’s hard to navigate. She says 19 newly arrived Venezuelans at one point last year were living in her home. She is known as the “Venezuelan who helps Venezuelans,” Garcia says.

Despite support from Ms. Torres and the Venezuelan diaspora in Navarra, Garcia says he is depressed and nervous. He worries about his family's prospects, about getting deported and being sent home, about having enough money and his future job prospects. Robbed twice back home – the last time by four men on two motorcycles who took his cell phone – he says he still can't get used to the free use of cellphones on the streets in Spain. “In Venezuela, they can rob you, or they can rob and kill you, just like that.”

He still finds solace in supermarkets, here marveling at the shelves in Pamplona, filled with sugar and oil and all the products lacking at home, including “toilet paper of any brand I could want, and in any quantity.”

But his dreams to open one are, for now, just that. In fact, he’ll be lucky, he says, if he can get a job cleaning one – or doing any kind of work so he can regain his independence and help his family. “My dad said to me, don’t send us money home. The only thing we want from you is get your sister out of here next.”

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