A new Brookings Institution study forecasting that the number of Venezuelan refugees will skyrocket to 8 million should trigger alarm bells in the United States and Latin America. It would be the world’s biggest mass exodus in recent times - bigger than the Syrian refugee crisis - and could destabilize the region.
The study, by Brookings’ Venezuelan-Israeli resident economist Dany Bahar and researcher Douglas Barrios, says its projection includes the 3 million Venezuelans who, according to the United Nations, have already left their country because of its humanitarian crisis. Most of the refugees have fled to Colombia.
The study does not specify the time frame for the projected 8 million figure. I called Bahar and asked him to be more specific.
Are we talking about a decade, or two or three decades? “No, we are talking about a much shorter time frame, of about two to three years,” Bahar told me.
The study takes into account Venezuela’s estimated 87 percent poverty rate, the steady collapse of the country’s economy and growing hyperinflation. It also takes into account world oil-price forecasts and family remittances from Venezuelans who have already left.
Asked whether the estimate of 8 million refugees is the most optimistic or pessimistic scenario in his study, Bahar said that, “It’s a scenario based on the most realistic projections. If we erred, we probably erred on the side of caution.”
If the study is right, it’s hard to foresee how the United States and Latin America could deal with this escalating exodus. Colombia already is asking for international help to deal with its migration crisis but is getting far less than it needs.
When I recently asked Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramirez whether her country could take another 1 million Venezuelan migrants in 2019, as her country’s migration office has projected, she told me, “No, we probably wouldn’t be able.”
Indeed, Colombian cities on the border with Venezuela already are flooded with Venezuelan refugees. Schools and hospitals are overcrowded and can hardly take more immigrants.
And President Trump, for all his hard-line rhetoric about Venezuela’s dictatorship, has been pretty unkind toward Venezuelan migrants. That may be because accepting a large number of Venezuelan refugees would undermine his phony claim that the United States is in the midst of an illegal immigration crisis.
In fact, Trump’s alleged immigration crisis is pure demagoguery - the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has fallen significantly over the past 10 years, according to the Pew Research Center. A bipartisan bill to give temporary protected status to Venezuelan refugees in the United States was introduced last week in the Senate, but the effort was led by a Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez.
So what would happen if the number of Venezuelan refugees nearly triples in coming years, as the Brookings study projects?
Some Venezuelan exiles speculate that Brazil’s incoming ultra-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, would lead a U.S.-backed military intervention to topple Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro. Those who believe in that scenario note that Bolsonaro already has pledged to be a close Trump ally, and that the last time Brazil and the United States were close allies - in the 1960s - Brazilian and U.S. forces invaded the Dominican Republic.
But Bolsonaro might be too focused on trying to resurrect Brazil’s economy to spend his political capital on a foreign intervention. And Trump might be too busy trying to defend himself from increasingly serious charges that he committed several crimes - including getting help from Russia - during his 2016 presidential campaign. Still, an embattled Trump could start a foreign war to divert public attention from his self-created domestic troubles.
Whatever the case, the possibility of an even bigger wave of Venezuelan refugees over the next three years should be taken seriously. There should be a renewed urgency to escalate international diplomatic sanctions on Maduro before he takes office Jan. 10 for a new six-year-term. If the world looks the other way, we may soon be heading toward a much more dire regional crisis.