With Venezuela in turmoil, migrants and refugees turn to Peru

LIMA, Peru – Mirna Lajoa wants to eat. Carmen Castillo wants a place for her family to live. And Mary Salazar just wants a set of bed sheets that will fit her mattress.

These women are part of what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls the largest mass migration in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela’s turmoil and decline have sent them and millions of their countrymen searching for affordable food, shelter and health care.

More than 3 million people have fled Venezuela since 2014, and analysts estimate that number could rise to 8 million. The International Monetary Fund projects inflation in Venezuela will be 10 million percent in 2019. The country is suffering rolling power blackouts, shortages of food and medicine are acute and corruption is rampant.

Venezuelans looking for safety and stability have turned primarily to neighboring South American countries for refuge and new opportunities.

Peru’s capital city, Lima, has become a major destination for the refugees. Peru today is one of the most peaceful and prosperous countries on the continent, a stark contrast to the terror and instability that defined it in the 1990s, when a brutal war raged between the government and Maoist guerillas. In fact, until recent years, people leaving Peru outnumbered those trying to enter.

– Video by Anikka Abbott/Cronkite Borderlands Project

Colombia, which borders Venezuela, has taken in the most Venezuelans in total – more than 1.1 million, according to the UN refugee agency, which is known as UNHCR. Peru is No. 2 on the list, having taken in more than 700,000.

Their mostly informal labor includes waiting tables in restaurants and selling trinkets and clothes at local markets. But a significant number have professional training and are working on Peruvian certification. These doctors, lawyers and teachers hope to help address critical shortages in the country.

Allie Schlafer, regional program manager for Lutheran World Relief, said most of the Venezuelans her organization works with have no regular jobs.

“A lot of them are selling items on the street, and that’s working for now,” Schlafer said. “But they’re selling the same items, and it isn’t very clear how long this type of system would work.”

Schlafer, like other activists in the region, said that although Peru has been effective in bringing Venezuelans in, it’s unclear what the long term solution is to properly integrating such a large influx of migrants.

“It doesn’t seem like the country has done very much at all as far as actual integration,” she said. “There are a lot of people who were unemployed in Lima before refugees came in. We are seeing more instances of xenophobia, and that’s something that needs to be recognized.”

The migrants have come by plane, car, bus and on foot – more than 2,000 miles across Colombia and Ecuador – to reach their eventual destination of Lima, where an estimated 85 percent of migrants entering Peru have settled. The influx has occurred over the past three years, straining Peru’s schools, housing, job market and health care system. Yet the country has welcomed the migrants with relatively open arms.

Mirna Lajoa, 23, a Venezuelan migrant, has been working at Inka Market in Lima’s upscale Miraflores district since last fall.

She left Venezuela just one semester shy of graduating college after realizing that, even with a degree, she’d be entering a workforce with no job prospects, no money and no secure health care.

Before leaving, Lajoa said, her only job, like many other college-aged students, was to study. That changed when she moved and started working at the market. She now spends most of her day folding hand-sewn jackets and selling bracelets to tourists. She sent money back home to get her father out of Venezuela and into Brazil, where her sister lives. He landed in Brazil the day she was interviewed by Cronkite News.

“My motor (motivation) is my family,” Lajoa said. “Before I was here, I worked as a secretary, as a waitress and saleswoman in Colombia, and I was a nanny.”

Growing up in Venezuela, she witnessed the country’s economic decline, which began early in her childhood after years of prosperity spurred by world’s largest oil reserves and a steady global demand for energy.

But the prosperity evaporated in recent years.

Mirna Lajoa works at a shop at Inka Market in the Miraflores district of Lima. Unlike Venezuela, Peru has afforded her economic opportunities, the 23-year-old says. (Photo by Mia Armstrong/Cronkite Borderlands Project)

“You couldn’t eat three meals a day,” Lajoa said of her life in Venezuela. “You get used to eating one meal a day because if you eat three, you can’t eat the next day.”

She has found food, work and resources more plentiful in Peru.

Peruvian economic stability comes despite repeated instances of political corruption and armed conflict. Nearly every Peruvian president since the 1990s has faced corruption charges. President Pedro Kuczynski was ousted in 2018 after accusations of illicit payoffs. Former President Alan Garcia shot himself to death April 17 as federal agents moved to arrest him on corruption charges. Former President Alberto Fujimori was tried and convicted for human rights abuses.

During Fujimori’s tenure in the 1990s, Peru was ravaged by the conflict between the government and such terrorist guerrilla groups as Shining Path. In that time, it was more common for Peruvians to flee their country than welcome immigrants.

Today in Peru, and in Lima in particular, unemployment is high, hitting about 8.2 percent in the most recent surveys, according to Peru’s National Institute for Data and Informatics. While its economy continues to grow based on strong global demand for its primary exports of zinc, copper and gold, the country’s poverty rate increased last year to 21.7 percent. It was the first such rise in 16 years.

Feline Freier, a political scientist researching the migration crisis at the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, said she doubts the Peruvian government’s ability to integrate skilled laborers into the workforce, adding that public-private partnerships would be crucial to successful integration. In the case of unskilled Venezuelans, who are more vulnerable, integration is even more challenging, she said.

“If there is prolonged conflict in Venezuela, we will see more and more vulnerable people leaving,” Freier said. “There, we aren’t talking about economic integration, we’re talking about a dire need for humanitarian assistance. Clearly, the Peruvian state is not in the capacity to deal with kind of humanitarian inflow alone, and I think the international donor community has become more active, but if we compare the kind of help that is being granted to states in South America, it’s still very little.”

Informal labor, such as restaurant jobs and hawking beverages on the streets, makes up more than 70 percent of Peru’s economy. That makes integration harder because the supply of formal jobs is low. Native Peruvians struggled to find formal jobs even before the influx of migrants.

Many economists and analysts agree that to properly integrate so many Venezuelans in Peru, the country must formalize more of its labor market.

“Lima is hitting a saturation point for informal jobs and housing,” said an official from the U.S. Embassy in Lima.

On the bright side, Venezuelan migrants may present an economic and social opportunity for Peru.

With a high number of well-educated and professional trained people among them, Venezuelan migrants offer Peru a chance to further formalize its economy with more doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs, a necessary addition in a rapidly growing country.

But for many of the new immigrants, continuing their professional careers in Peru has been challenging.

Doctors and lawyers in particular face intense certification processes to continue their practices in Peru. According to data from Peru’s Superintendencia Nacional de Educación Superior Universitaria, the agency in charge of recredentialing immigrants, few Venezuelans, regardless of education level, have sought re-evaluation for their former jobs.

Freier said it’s paramount for Peru to formalize its economy to benefit both native Peruvians and newcomers from Venezuela.

“It’s normal to work in the informal economy. But for the state and the development potential of this immigration flow, of course it’d be important to formalize Venezuelans just as it should be a priority to formalize Peruvians,” Freier said. “This might sound like a cliche or stereotype, but I think there are enough economic studies that really show this positive impact on economies medium and long term, and in the case of Peru, it’s a huge opportunity, and again I think the state is aware of this opportunity.”

Peru may be recognizing that opportunity. Compared to countries like Brazil or Ecuador, it has more welcoming laws for refugees, making it one of the more popular landing spots for Venezuelans. The government initially created a temporary stay permit known as the Permiso Temporal de Permanencia, or PTP. But that program was suspended Oct. 31, 2018, leaving many Venezuelans in Peru in a state of limbo. Even so, Peru in April announced it was considering approving a “humanitarian visa” to deal with the continuing flow of Venezuelans into the country.

Nersis Arrieta, 32, and Edil Aguilar, 31, hold up their Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP) cards, which are supposed to allow them to work legally in Peru. The couple, who came from the region of Lara, Venezuela, arrived in Peru in January 2018. (Photo by Anya Magnuson/Cronkite Borderlands Project)

There isn’t one narrative that can define the story of all Venezuelan refugees. There are a few fortunate enough to live in Miraflores, a wealthy area of Lima. Others, including Lajoa, live in central Lima, and many live in San Juan de Lurigancho, one of the most impoverished districts in the city, which is starting to be known colloquially as “Little Venezuela.”

Many immigrants live in shelters when they first arrive. Shelters run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees can typically house them for just over two weeks, but those in higher need, such as families, pregnant women and the elderly, may be able to stay longer.

At one of UNHCR’s refugee shelters in March, toddlers ran and played together well past nightfall as their parents watched closely, occasionally giving their children crackers or water.
The sound of an airplane echoed above.

“Wave at the plane,” one of the teenagers yelled.

The young children looked up in wonder, reaching as high as they could with excited smiles. The teenagers, however, wore a more solemn look, as if they wanted to be on board, far from the turmoil and uncertainty they’ve faced since leaving home.

Husband and wife Carlos Linares and Carmen Castillo, who left Venezuela about a year ago, came with their year-old son, Dylan, and 12-year-old daughter, Henderlyn, to one of UNHCR’s shelters in February. The family is seeking refugee status.

Dylan has stomach problems, and by early March had been to a doctor’s appointment and was expected to be treated soon. He is the only member of his family who qualifies for government health care in Peru, which gives automatic benefits to pregnant women and children younger than 5.

The health issues, combined with the uncertainty about where to live after leaving the shelter, weighs heavily on the family.

Husband and wife Carlos Linares and Carmen Castillo with their year-old son, Dylan, at a U.N. shelter in Lima on Tuesday, March 5. (Photo by Ethan Millman/Cronkite Borderlands Project)

“We know this place is only temporary,” Castillo said in tears. “We know we can’t stay here forever. We want to know where we’re going to live.”

UNHCR doesn’t have the means to house every person in need indefinitely, but Regina de la Portilla, a communications representative for UNHCR, said the organization will help residents however it can, which includes allowing families to stay together.

In San Juan de Lurigancho, a hostel called Albergue sin Fronteras offers a type of shelter that’s different from those run by UNHCR. It houses many more Venezuelans and lacks some of the resources and funding of UNHCR facility. It is also located in one of the poorest districts in Lima. However, it has a longer stay limit: one month.

The number of Venezuelans in Alburgue sin Fronteras constantly fluctuates, but it offers free housing to 30 to 90 people on any given day.

There were more children and families here than at the UNHCR shelter. The kids used small wooden crates as makeshift bumper cars in the courtyard outside. Like at the UNHCR shelter, the teenagers were watching over their younger siblings as intently as their parents.

Cooks who live at the hostel make meals for the entire population, working in shifts, preparing dishes cafeteria-style.

Mary Salazar had been at the hostel for more than a month. She trekked from Venezuela on foot and by bus to get to Peru. She, like some of the other Alburgue sin Fronteras residents, was robbed. She lost contact with one of her sons after getting to Lima and says she hasn’t heard from him since January.

The increase in Venezuelans in Peru has also given rise to xenophobic rhetoric among Peru’s working class, which has begun to look at Venezuelan labor as competition for jobs.

According to a survey from the Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru’s Institute of Public Opinion, nearly 80% of Peruvians surveyed agree or strongly agree that Venezuelans are taking jobs from Peruvian citizens. The same survey found that half of Peruvians agree or strongly agree that Venezuelans are unreliable or dishonest.

Nicolas Parent, a researcher at the Universidad del Pacifico who also studied the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Turkey, said the harsh rhetoric toward Venezuelans is recent.

“When the crisis first started, the white upper class was welcoming to the refugees,” Parent said. “But the profile is changing. You’ve got more families, indicating that these people may settle in. There’s more poor people, more indigenous people, which doesn’t sit well with the upper class.”

The U.S. has pledged about $13.2 million in aid to Peru with the influx of Venezuelans, and the money has primarily gone to non-government organizations focused on education, housing and other basic necessities.

Many of the immigrants have voiced a desire to return home when Venezuela stabilizes, but given the extent of the problems there, experts at the U.S. Embassy in Lima said they expect Venezuelans to be in Peru for a long time.

“A lot of people voted with their feet to come here,” an embassy official said. “Even if everything changed this afternoon, it will likely take time before they come back.”

Peter Zabaleta, 25, a Venezuelan migrant who works at the shop across from Lajoa’s store, said he doesn’t see himself ever going back and plans on eventually going to Switzerland, where his uncle lives.

“I believe that Venezuela is no longer ours,” said Zabaleta, formerly an English translator. “It belongs to the next generation.”

Still, directly across from his shop, Lajoa, who’s just two years younger, sees her country differently.

“My goal would be to reach Europe and study there or study professionally,” Lajoa said, smiling, her eyes full of hope. “But I’d also like to return to my country, there’s nothing like being in your country.”

Cronkite Borderlands Project is a multimedia reporting program in which students cover human rights, immigration and border issues in the U.S. and abroad in both English and Spanish.


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