We live in the age of the refugee, a time in which war, conflict and persecution have forced tens of millions people around the globe to flee their homes, abandon their jobs, or give up on school.
Through no fault of their own, displaced people often live a desperate existence, struggling to overcome food insecurity, disease and anxiety — while trying to nurture hope for a better future for themselves and their children.
Regardless of where they find themselves, refugees from different parts of our world tend to share similar experiences. After all, people are people — no matter where they live.
Different yet similar
The forces that have driven refugees out of Myanmar and Venezuela are very different. Yet the distinct crises are similar in that both have generated major humanitarian challenges for host countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) struggling to meet the basic needs of the displaced.
In the summer of 2017, military forces in Myanmar unleashed a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in restive Rakhine State, targeting the Rohingya Muslim community. The violence, which included rape, murder and the destruction of entire villages, forced the mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar to a refugee settlement in neighbouring Bangladesh.
According to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) update for Bangladesh covering the period of April 1 to 30, 2019, there are a total of 907,357 refugees at Cox’s Bazar, of which 741,357 have been received by the refugee settlement since August 2017.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela political turmoil and oppression as well as the collapse of the socialist country’s economy have generated a massive refugee crisis.
According to two UN agencies, four million refugees have fled Venezuela. On June 7, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued a joint statement declaring that Venezuelan refugees are one of the world’s single largest displaced groups.
According to the joint statement, Colombia has taken in approximately 1.3 million Venezuelan refugees, more than any other country in Latin America. Peru is hosting 768,000, Chile has welcomed 288,000, and Ecuador is sheltering 263,000. In addition, Brazil and Argentina are safe havens for 168,000 and 130,000 Venezuelans, respectively.
The UNHCR and IOM report that the outflow of refugees “skyrocketed” from an estimated 695,000 at the end of 2015 to approximately four million by mid-2019. Since November 2018, the size of the Venezuelans refugee and migrant population has jumped by one million people.
Meanwhile, on June 7, UNICEF announced that it is ramping up the delivery of humanitarian assistance to children in Venezuela, where the humanitarian situation is deteriorating.
UNICEF estimates that approximately 3.2 million children, which equates to one in three kids, require humanitarian assistance. And the UN children’s agency reports that the child mortality for children under the age of five in Venezuela soared by more than 50 per cent between 2014 and 2017.
On the ground
Lindsay Gladding has first-hand knowledge of the challenges confronting refugees who have fled both Myanmar and Venezuela. Gladding, who is World Vision Canada’s director of humanitarian and emergency affairs, has been on the ground in Colombia, where she met with Venezuelan refugees earlier this year. And at the height of the Rohingya influx at Cox’s Bazar in September 2017, she was there assessing the situation.
“We have one population that is really moving because of conflict and persecution and direct threat to their lives in Myanmar,” the World Vision staffer said. “And in Venezuela where you have economic crises, political persecution, and people having to move.”
How do the demographics of the two refugee populations compare?
“I would say that these are two quite distinct and unique movements of people,” Gladding replied.
“We talk about the Rohingya being the most persecuted population in the world. They are stateless. They do not have citizenship in Myanmar. They are not recognized as refugees by the government of Bangladesh, because the government there is not a signatory to the refugee convention. And they are really in a significant situation of limbo, where they can’t move forward in Bangladesh but they also can’t return to Myanmar, in a situation that is not safe for them to do so.”
The crisis in Venezuela and resultant outflow of refugees has been ongoing for years, punctuated by successive waves of refugees fleeing the country, Gladding said of the protracted crisis. For instance, the first wave was composed mostly of single men looking for work so that they could send money back home to Venezuela, she said.
However, Gladding stated that the latest wave is largely composed of family units. But she noted that unaccompanied Venezuelan children are also crossing the border into Colombia looking for safety and access to education.
“The end result is that you have families, children, who are no longer able to live safely and sustainably in their home countries and have no other choice but to cross the border and become refugees,” she said of the two refugee crises.
How desperate are the living conditions for the Rohingya in Cox Bazar? And what is life like for Venezuelan refugees?
“The population in Cox’s Bazar quadrupled in a matter of weeks,” Gladding said of the main Rohingya refugee settlement in Bangladesh. “That meant it went from 200,000 people to almost a million people in less than eight weeks. And so it’s one of the most densely populated refugee camps that I’ve ever seen.”
As a result, there is little room for latrines or spaces for children to play in the Cox’s Bazar settlement, Gladding observed. “There are significant sanitation and public health concerns.”
As for Venezuela, Gladding said the condition of the refugees varies depending on where they settle. “We know that four million people have fled Venezuela,” she continued. “They fled to Colombia, to Peru, to Ecuador, to Brazil — throughout the region, not only going to one place like the Rohingya have done in Cox’s Bazar.”
In Colombia, the refugees use what little money they have to rent apartments. Gladding said that as many as six refugee families live together in two-bedroom apartments.
She recalled meeting “a mother who had three children under the age of five,” and “she was living in a tent made with tarps, and no access to water, no latrine.”
In the long term, which refugee population is more likely to return home and be safe?
“I believe that both populations have an opportunity to return home, if there is sufficient political will and international support to allow that to happen,” Gladding replied.
“We know what it is going to take,” she said of the possible safe return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. “It means that ensuring the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission on Rahkine State are implemented: that the Rohingya are granted citizenship; and there is international presence and observation to ensure that they can return safely and live in dignity and freedom.”
Regarding the possible return of Venezuelan refugees, Gladding said the situation is “very similar.” “If we are able to support a transition in Venezuela that allows for families to return, they will. I think that’s common across refugee populations.”
Are there any similarities between the child refugees from Myanmar and those from Venezuela?
“Absolutely,” Gladding replied without hesitation. In fact, she said there is a universal desire among refugee children around the world to go to school.
In general, what is similar about the Rohingya and Venezuelan refugee crises?
“I think the commonality is that given any other choice, families would not have chosen this one,” Gladding said of the decision to flee.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.