With a warning that the exodus from Venezuela is close to producing a “crisis moment”, last week the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) urged Latin American nations to relax visa restrictions for more than 1.6 million citizens who have left the country during the last three years. The UN’s language suggests that the current situation bears comparison with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. That is a morally appropriate response. The numbers involved are similar and with 5,000 new departures each day, and just half of the UNHCR’s US$46 million project to provide basic needs to asylum seekers funded, the situation could worsen rapidly.
Regional concern about the spillover effects of the humanitarian crisis are growing. Officials from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, recently met in Bogota to discuss plans to offer employment, health care and schooling for Venezuelan migrants. Peru and Argentina may also join Chile, Colombia and Paraguay in laying charges of crimes against humanity on President Maduro in International Criminal Court. Next week 14 countries and 10 international organizations will convene in Ecuador to discuss further responses to the crisis.
Meanwhile, in a grimly appropriate counterpoint, the Washington Post reports that the Trump administration has started a crackdown on “hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the US-Mexican border” for allegedly “using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies.” This attitude, as with the administration’s draconian separation of migrant children from their parents, is of a piece with a pattern of resurgent xenophobia worldwide. Earlier this year in the UK, the so-called Windrush scandal exposed a similar level of mistrust towards West Indians within the British government. The Home Affairs Select Commit-tee’s official review of those abuses concluded that unless the UK Immigration department was quickly overhauled similar mistreatment “will happen again, for another group of people.”
Even more alarming than simmering bureaucratic hostility towards strangers is the neglect and abuse that immigrants face when they are detained. Last month an adolescent girl was evacuated from an Australian detention centre on Nauru after succumbing to a psychiatric disorder called ‘resignation syndrome’. Its symptoms included the slashing of her arms and legs with a razor blade followed by a refusal to eat or drink anything for almost a week. One health worker on the island told reporters that she knew of at least six children with similar symptoms.
These unconscionable attitudes towards immigrants, asylum seekers, and their descendants have deep historical roots. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Pankaj Mishra observes a century ago social Darwinism was embraced in Australia and “amplified by media barons like Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert and a stalwart of the eugenics movement) and institutionalized in a “White Australia” policy that restricted “coloured” migration for most of the 20th century.” Similar views were evident in the US with a “1924 immigration law (much admired by Hitler and, more recently, by Jeff Sessions), which impeded Jewish immigrants and barred Asians entirely.” Mishra notes that these “nativist and racist demagogues entrenched a politics of dispossession, segregation and disenfranchisement” that resounds within their countries to this day.
As the Caribbean and Latin America belatedly address the crisis in Venezuela, it is worth contemplating the irony that we ourselves, nations fashioned from the forced migrations of Europe’s empires, have largely displayed a very European indifference to the appalling misery that has engulfed our neighbour. We are rightly horrified by Europe’s heartlessness towards African migrants but when we are faced with a humanitarian crisis of similar proportions our collective response has been no less evasive and inadequate.