When news of Venezuela’s migrant crisis started making international headlines in 2015, my attention was instantly drawn to this humanitarian emergency in Latin America. My interest in these events did not solely derive from my journalistic focus on migration issues. In fact, it had much more to do with the deep, personal bond I have with South America.
A few months after I turned 18, and just a couple of weeks after receiving my Leaving Cert results, I boarded a plan for Peru in an attempt to escape the south Dublin, middle-class, privileged world I had grown up in. I spent the following 12 months living in Iquitos – a city in the Peruvian Amazon which is still considered one of the most inaccessible urban areas on earth, given that it can only be reached by plane or boat.
In 2011, I returned to Latin America to travel alone from Argentina to Canada over nine months and rediscover the countries outside Peru that I did not have the chance to visit during my year-long stint in 2005.
Aside from my own ties with the continent, I had grown up hearing stories from my father who hitch-hiked around Latin America (including Venezuela) in the early 1970s and later returned as a journalist to cover the guerrilla wars against right-wing military dictators in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Finally, while I’ve never met them, my father’s Jewish cousins, who were forced to flee Europe during the second world war, ended up in Venezuela.
In short, I have developed, during my 33 years on this earth, a deep fascination in Latin American history, politics, culture and society.
As the Venezuelan situation deteriorated and tensions between the country’s president Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido (who is recognised by about 60 countries as Venezuela’s interim president) heightened, I set my sights on finding a way to travel to this South American country to report on the emergency. But as is often the way, life got in the way and before I knew it, it was 2019 and the trip hadn’t yet happened. Then, I learned Peru had become deeply embedded in the crisis.
I had read countless reports from Colombia about the nearly two million Venezuelans who had crossed over the border seeking safety and employment, but was surprised to discover that Peru had become the second largest host country for Venezuelan migrants. By the end of 2019, more than 870,000 Venezuelans had arrived in Peru, according to official statistics. However, in reality, the actual number is estimated to be well above one million given the significant number of Venezuelans entering the country illegally.
While Peru was initially lauded for its open welcome to its Venezuelan brothers and sisters, its decision to launch a new ‘humanitarian visa’ to regulate what had become 5,000 Venezuelans crossing the border each day was harshly criticised by NGOs. Amnesty International described the visa as an “unviable form of protection” and warned of the “serious and rapid deterioration” in Peru’s treatment of refugees.
Peru’s president Martín Vizcarra said the visa would promote “safe and orderly” migration, making the announcement from an airport runway, while behind him a group of Venezuelans facing deportation for providing false documentation were led onto a plane.
I was particularly drawn to cover the Venezuelan crisis from the Peruvian angle because of the parallels between this Andean nation and my own home country. Like Ireland, Peru has a history of emigration – an estimated 3.5 million Peruvians (equivalent to 10 per cent of the population) have moved abroad in recent decades because of economic instability and the Shining Path terrorist movement in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a country with a recent memory of being forced to leave home searching for better opportunities abroad. Did this personal migratory experience play into the policy decisions being made by Peruvian officials towards these new arrivals? I wanted to find out and thankfully, the Simon Cumbers Media Fund made that possible.
I spent a week between Lima and Tumbes in northern Peru in late February speaking to Venezuelans who had arrived into the country in recent months and years. I had initially planned to wait until March to take the trip but thankfully went with the earlier date. Had I waited, I would have arrived into the country just days before it went into complete lockdown and could have found myself among the group of Irish people who had to lobby the Irish government to secure an emergency repatriation flight to get home.
During the seven days I spent in Peru, I discovered that while Venezuelans who had arrived a few years ago had somewhat settled in the country, the more recent arrivals were struggling to find work and integrate. The labelling of Venezuelans as criminals and murderers by Peruvian media networks and some prominent political figures also contributed to a growing sense of unease and fear.