Venezuela’s border crackdown: Anti-smuggling operation or political theater?

A humanitarian emergency develops as President Maduro closes borders, adding Venezuela to the list of overshadowed refugee crises around the world.

Isaac Urrutia/Reuters
Colombian nationals living in Venezuela attempt to cross the border, Sept. 8, 2015. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has extended a border shutdown, creating a humanitarian crisis as thousands of Colombians, many of whom have lived in Venezuela for years or decades, return en masse.

On Monday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed yet another border crossing into Colombia, escalating a crisis that has left frustrated travelers stranded, wreaked havoc with the regional economy, and sent thousands of Colombian immigrants fleeing before they can be deported.

President Maduro calls it a necessary anti-smuggling offensive, but some international critics allege the crisis was "manufactured" to distract Venezuelans from their disastrous economy as elections approach.

Maduro has offered several explanations for declaring a state of emergency on August 21, including suspicions of neighboring Colombia and the struggling Venezuelan economy, whose soaring inflation has put basic goods out of most citizens’ reach. Some 30 percent of families reported eating two or fewer meals a day in the spring and summer. 

One pretext for the latest border closings is a recent attack on border guards, which Maduro claims was ordered by former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a charge The Washington Post calls "ludicrous." Maduro has also accused the Columbian government of undermining his government and trying to assassinate him.

Another explanation for tightening the Colombian-Venezuelan border is to cut down on rampant smuggling, a linchpin of the border economy. Given Venezuela’s heavily subsidized oil, fuel is particularly lucrative for smugglers – who are typically not poor migrants but Venezuelan officers, reports the Washington Post.

While only 1,500 Colombian nationals have been officially deported, rumors of violence have sent up to 20,000 pouring back across the border, including many wading across the knee-deep Tachira River with their belongings on their backs. 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos maintains that the border scare is Maduro's attempt to shift blame to outsiders for the severe economic slump that has hammered Venezuela under his watch.

Venezuela has an enormous Colombian immigrant population for Maduro to scapegoat, as roughly 5 million Colombians moved to Venezuela in recent decades to escape Colombia’s long-running civil conflict, wooed by former president Hugo Chavez's promises of free housing and health care.

The thousands of returning migrants and refugees have left President Santos pleading for international assistance for food and housing. Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin is scheduled to speak with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Wednesday. 

The South American humanitarian crisis is not the only refugee hotspot that risks being forgotten as media attention zeroes in on the European Union.

Earlier this year, the plight of the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar (Burma), drew outrage directed at not only Myanmar’s allegedly state-sponsored persecution, which has left 140,000 Rohingya effectively stateless and confined to poorly-resourced camps, but also at nearby countries such as Australia and Thailand for their reluctance to accept refugees fleeing by boat.

Meanwhile, although thousands of refugees are leaving temporary camps in the Middle East for Western Europe, many more remain. By the end of the year, 4.27 million refugees are predicted in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan alone

Worldwide, the UN reports that 60 million people have been displaced by conflict – half of them children. 

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