A Turning Tide? Venezuelan Displacement and Migration Governance in Peru
Initially, South American countries were very empathetic and welcoming towards Venezuelan forced displacement – a migration wave that started to sweep across the region in 2015 – employing immigration policies that allowed regular entry and temporary residence. In many respects, Peru stood as the regional leader in receiving those fleeing Venezuela as a result of political persecution and economic turmoil. Now, this reputation is increasingly eroding, with fears about immigration prevailing over respect for humanitarian principles, commitments to human rights, and the collective memory of Venezuelans once hosting Peruvians during their dark days in the 1980s and 1990s.
In recent weeks, reports of rising xenophobia in Peru have flooded the international press. Tensions over the alleged correlation between Venezuelan immigration and increasing crime have been incrementally growing since last year. Openly xenophobic public discourses, which initially focused on economic arguments, emerged for the first time in the electoral campaigns during the 2018 municipal elections. For example, Ricardo Belmont, candidate for mayor of Lima, inflated the number of Venezuelans in the country, falsely claiming that “more than one million Venezuelans have come to work in Peru, to take work away from Peruvians.” A deluge of hate speech and false claims about Venezuelans receiving preferential minimum wages and social services followed on social media platforms, as if the levies separating moral logic and knee-jerk fear had now been lifted.
Since then, Peru has engaged in an on-going discussion on immigration policy, largely as a result of often ill-informed and contradicting perspectives on the migration question and its overall impact on the economy, public safety, and social services. It was the sharp increase in public xenophobia, however, that triggered a tightening of Peru’s migration policy. Passports became a requirement for Venezuelans entering the country in August 2018; only becoming effective in January 2019 due to judicial review. At the same time, the application period for special work visas (Permiso Temporal de Permanencia, PTP) was shortened, and then the program was suspended all together. With the end of the PTP, asylum applications became the only means of legal entry and residence for many Venezuelans and applications rose to almost 300,000 in mid 2019.
Further preventing Venezuelans from entering the country legally, Peru essentially closed its borders through the implementation of a so-called humanitarian visa in June 2019. It speaks for itself that President Martín Vizcarra announced this new visa while personally accompanying the deportation of “bad elements” (Venezuelans who had lied to the authorities about their criminal records) at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, declaring: “We will not permit that people who commit crimes remain in Peru.” As the humanitarian visa can only be applied for at the Peruvian consulates in Venezuela (and in exceptional cases in other countries) and requires a passport and clean criminal record – documents that today in Venezuela are close to impossible to obtain – this has led to a steep increase in irregular border crossings.
The term ‘mass hysteria’ should not be taken lightly, but it is a term that seems fair to use in this case given that in Peru most crime is currently blamed on Venezuelan immigrants. A related, and perhaps less accusatory, lens is the concept of ‘moral panics.’ Developed by sociologist Stanley Cohen, a society is seen to be undergoing a moral panic when an easily discernable ‘other’ – Venezuelans in this case – are broadly accused of threatening societal values and interests. Either way, the shift in public opinion has led some to suggest that the limits to immigration are still insufficient. Some policy makers are picking up on these sentiments, such as the arguably extremist position of Fujimorista congresswoman Esther Saavedra who announced in Congress at the end of September that “Venezuelans, bad or good, have to leave the country.”
Interestingly, while the impact on the labour market is still occasionally cited as a negative externality of Venezuelan immigration, most of the energy fuelling xenophobia now builds on the issue of criminality; public perception is therefore predicated on a shared understanding that Venezuelan immigrants are undermining the moral fabric of Peruvian society. An additional feature of moral panics is related to how the issue is represented and discussed in the media. In Peru, concerns over Venezuelan immigration have been stylistically presented in the form of sensationalist reporting that not only depersonalizes Venezuelan immigrants and over represents crimes committed by them, but reports facts out of context, thus turning them into ‘fake news.’ In such reporting, publicly available data based sources that would help put to bed this climate of fear have been systematically omitted.
According to official reports of the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (INPE), from 2016 to 2019, the number of foreigners arrested decreased. In May 2019, the number of Venezuelan prisoners in Peruvian prisons was just 381 out of a total prison population of 91,908. Bearing in mind that the Venezuelan population in Peru exceeds 850,000, only 0.04% is part of the prison population – in contrast to 0.31% of Peruvians. Likewise, according to the registry of the National Police of Peru (PNP), only 0.5% of total complaints filed between 2016 and the first quarter of 2019 were against Venezuelan citizens. Despite these facts, even well regarded media outlets in Peru reported this data as a 600% increase in Venezuelan prisoners.
Peruvian media has been extremely irresponsible in creating this moral panic about Venezuelan immigration and crime, which will all too easily be instrumentalized by politicians – many of whom share the same skewed perceptions on immigration and crime. In light of the upcoming January 2020 parliamentary elections, it would be extremely important for Peruvian political parties and candidates to follow the good practice of Colombia, whose parties signed an agreement earlier this year to not use the issue of immigration in the electoral campaigns in regional elections. While there has been an increase in xenophobic reporting across the region, there is significant variation regarding its extent and policy impact. For example, following the example of Mexico and Brazil, and despite being the country most affected by Venezuelan forced displacement, Colombia recently announced the possible application of the expanded refugee definition of Cartagena – which originated in the Cartagena Agreement of 1984 but has since been incorporated in most domestic refugee laws in the region – to all Venezuelan citizens.
Luisa Feline Freier, Universidad del Pacífico, Lima
Nicolas Parent, Department of Geography, McGill University
The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.