Venezuela in Crisis: What Does It Mean for Northbound Student Mobility?

When it comes to humanitarian crises, particularly human-caused crises, much of the world’s attention is focused on the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, areas often associated with conflict and turmoil. The Americas, however, continue to reel from major crises as well.

A crisis is now unfolding in Venezuela [1], where a combination of economic collapse, political unrest, and rampant crime has precipitated a mass exodus from the country. A recent article in [2]The Economist [2] made two startling claims: The stream of people fleeing Venezuela is set to outpace the outflow from Syria since that country’s civil war began; and that it may become “the largest forced displacement of people in Latin American history.”

As far as massive forced displacement, the international higher education community in North America continues to focus on the Eastern Hemisphere. But the seeming unraveling of Venezuela could have important implications for academic institutions in Canada and the United States.

For one, Venezuela is a significant sender of international students, particularly to the U.S. During the 2016/17 academic year, Venezuela sent 8,540 students to the U.S., a growth of 3.3 percent from the previous year, making it the 20th top sending country, according to IIE’s [3]Open Doors Report [3]. Venezuela was the 31st top sender to Canada in 2017, at 1,695 students, according to data [4] from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). It is not clear how these numbers will change in the near future, given the crisis.

Grappling with this crisis may be important for many North American institutions, as they face either a decline or, quite possibly, an increase in students—some who may come as asylum seekers—suffering from financial problems, immigration hurdles, and trauma.

Understanding the Crisis and Its Roots

Venezuela is experiencing economic collapse and significant political and social dysfunction. Under the current government headed by President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s economy is in free fall, marked by staggering hyperinflation. There are severe shortages of daily necessities such as food, medicine, and household items like toilet paper. Crime, including homicide and armed robbery, is rampant. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime grows increasingly authoritarian, cracking down heavily on dissidents and protestors, as it consolidates power.

Many experts consider the roots of Venezuela’s current problems to go back to the presidency of Hugo Chávez, who ruled from 1999 to his death in 2013. Originally a lieutenant colonel in the army, Chávez attempted to come to power via a coup [5] in 1992. Though that attempt failed, he was democratically elected in 1998 and took office early the following year.

During his time in office, he consolidated the powers of the presidency through a new constitution in 1999. He steered Venezuela in a sharply leftist direction, toward “21st century socialism.” [6] He nationalized private industries, including the country’s media and crucial oil industry; he also brought the military more actively into government, and suppressed dissent. Perhaps most significantly, he developed a generous social welfare program for the poor using oil funds.

Some experts believe1 [7] that economic mismanagement under Chávez and his handpicked successor, Maduro, has led to Venezuela’s staggering economic problems. The country has relied heavily on oil [8] for export revenue, but when oil prices dropped worldwide in 2016, Venezuela’s economy went into a tailspin. In response to out-of-control inflation, Maduro simply slashed several zeros off the currency and renamed it the “sovereign bolívar,” printing and minting new notes and coins.

As an editorial in [9]The Guardian [9] puts it, “The new bolívar … can be carried in wallets, not wheelbarrows.” However, the value of the new currency has dropped by 95 percent. The sovereign bolivar is set against a new cryptocurrency from the government, known as the petro, the value of which is determined by the cost of oil. The Trump administration has hit Venezuela hard with sanctions, which make it difficult for the country to deal with its debt problems, and has banned the use of the petro in U.S. transactions. The Maduro government reportedly continues to blame the economic problems [10] on “capitalist” and “imperialist” forces. Inflation in Venezuela is projected to reach about one million percent [10] by year’s end.

Furthermore, the government began instituting price controls [8] during the Chávez years, with the intention of keeping the price of goods low for the poor. It also enacted currency controls [11] by “pegging the bolívar to the U.S. dollar.” These two measures have disincentivized producers from making enough products locally and importers from bringing in necessities from abroad, leading to severe shortages in goods of all kinds including food, medicine, and even personal hygiene items. Hunger and starvation [12] are widespread. Many turn to the black market [11] for common goods, despite being charged sky-high prices.

In tandem with this economic turbulence is violent crime. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. While official statistics have not been released, the country is believed to have had an average of 53.7 homicides per every 100,000 people [13], the third-highest homicide rate worldwide in 2017. Caracas is often considered [14] the world’s “most dangerous capital city.”

Moreover, Maduro has further consolidated his power since taking over from Chávez. When the opposition party, the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, won a majority of seats [8] in the National Assembly in 2016, Maduro attempted to dissolve it using the Supreme Court, which is mostly packed with his supporters [15]. In July 2017, Maduro held a special election [15] to form a new Constituent Assembly, in place of the National Assembly, and invested it with the power to rewrite [8] the 1999 constitution. Widely viewed as unfair, the election resulted in a vast majority of seats in the new assembly held by members of Maduro’s Socialist Party. Maduro has further weakened opposition forces [16] through various means and recently won another term as president [17] in an election that was most likely rigged, according to many observers.

All of this, particularly the replacement of the National Assembly, led to massive street protests [1], on which the regime has cracked down heavily. Police and military brutality, including a large number of extrajudicial executions, have been widely cited [18].

The State of Higher Education in Venezuela

Venezuela’s universities and other higher education institutions have suffered tremendously during the current crisis. However, some problems go back to the Chávez era, when the late president shifted funding for higher education based on his ideological priorities, which Orlando Albornoz [19] of the Central University of Venezuela has described as “anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-technology, anti-internationalization, and of course anti-globalization.”2 [20] Under Chávez, and then under Maduro, government finances were shifted away [21] from autonomous universities toward more government-controlled institutions known as “Bolivarian universities,”3 [22] which promote “21st century socialism.”

The lack of funding combined with the rapidly shrinking economy and the lack of access to foreign currency has resulted in the inability of many universities to purchase new equipment [23], such as for laboratories. Many institutions have struggled to pay faculty and staff, whose salaries are insufficient to live on [24]. As a result, many faculty members have sought second jobs, and several institutions, including top institutions such as the Central University of Venezuela, have shortened their school week to three days.

Additionally, students, faculty, and staff often face security issues arising from the high crime rate and political instability. According to a CNN article [25], “University campuses are ghost towns in Venezuela by 5 p.m.” because of the rampant crime on university campuses, including armed robbery, which occurs especially after dark. Theft [23], particularly of cell phones and laptops, is common as well.

Students [26] as well as some faculty [27] have been at the forefront of protests against the Maduro regime. Students have suffered a high number of fatalities [26] from their confrontations with government forces, as well as killings by government supporters. Many student protest leaders have also been jailed [6]. Some faculty members have been jailed [28] because of their political activities, which are often referred to as “terrorism.”

As a result of the numerous problems faced by the higher education sector and in daily life, students and professors [29] are fleeing Venezuela in droves. Both public and private universities have been affected. From 2012 to 2017, an estimated 1,600 faculty members [27] left their posts at five of the main public universities. The mass exodus of students makes many universities feel deserted, by some reports [30].

According to one study [31], among several, a majority of university students who had stayed in Venezuela were now hoping to leave the country, seeing no future in remaining. Carried out by migration researcher Emilio Osorio Alvarez at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV, in Spanish), the survey found that out of 360 UCV student respondents, 90 percent said they were willing to leave the country if they felt they could not achieve their future goals there. The survey results also indicate that 65 percent of the respondents are “not living the life they’d like to lead, do not believe that their life circumstances are good and they are not satisfied with their current situation.”

Basic education, of course, also suffers under the current crisis. The number of children attending school has plummeted [32], with hunger the top reason for their absence.

Outbound Migration

Migrants leaving Venezuela during the Chávez years and the first few years of the Maduro regime were largely upper- and upper-middle-class families. As a result, until recently, most Venezuelan migrants have been well educated, often college graduates. Many who went to the U.S. were hired into managerial roles, according to the Migration Policy Institute [33]. In general, well-educated migrants seem to be able to travel further, likely because they have more resources (particularly financial) and connections.

More recently, however, a wider cross section of Venezuelan society has fled the country. Great numbers have gone to neighboring and other countries in the region. According to The Economist [2], about 1.6 million people left Venezuela in 2017 alone; as many as 2.3 million [34] may have left during Maduro’s rule. Huge numbers have [35] sought refuge in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago. Countries as geographically disparate as Argentina, Ecuador [36], and Mexico have also taken in significant numbers [2]. The country hosting the greatest number overall appears to be Colombia [34], which now has about one million Venezuelans within its borders.

A chart showing the percentage of official asylum applications among Venezuelans by country from 2014 to 2018. [37]

The status of Venezuelan migrants within each country of refuge varies, and it appears that relatively few have applied for asylum. Peru hosts the largest number of Venezuelans who have officially applied for asylum, 150,274 as of October 2018, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [38] (UNHCR)4 [39]. Estimated figures for Venezuelans who have fled [33] range from 1.6 to 4 million, though most news outlets report 1.5 to 2 million. UNHCR reports [38] a total of 365,924 asylum claims in other countries from 2014 to 2018. The second-largest recipient of asylum claims is the U.S., with nearly 73,000 as of June. Other major countries receiving asylum requests are Brazil, Spain, and Ecuador.

Some countries have developed alternatives to asylum status for Venezuelans. Chile, Colombia, Panama, and Peru host significant numbers under these status alternatives. Peru, for example, has developed a special permit for Venezuelans [40] known as Permiso Temporal de Permanencia, or Temporary Residence Permit, which allows them to work. More recently, however, these countries have begun tightening both their borders and migration policies [41] in response to the huge influx of Venezuelans. Furthermore, most countries taking in Venezuelans do not recognize them as refugees [42].

A chart showing other forms of legal stay in various countries for Venezuelans from 2014 to 2018. [43]

Venezuela has long had a robust number of students who have sought education abroad, even as the country has faced economic turmoil. The U.S. has been the top destination by far among Venezuelan students going abroad for study [44]. However, compared with many of their Latin American counterparts, who strongly favor North American and European countries, Venezuelan students are more likely to go to other countries in the region for study as well. Their second and third top destinations are Argentina and Colombia. Spain and Canada round out the top five countries. Spain has long been a favored destination for students from Spanish-speaking Latin America because of historical, cultural, and linguistic ties.

Venezuelan Asylum Seekers and Students in the U.S.

By many accounts [45], Venezuela became the top country of origin of asylum seekers in the U.S. in 2017, continuing into 2018 (though full data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are not yet public). In 2016, Venezuelans filed the second-highest number of asylum applications [46], at 14,773, after Chinese nationals, according to DHS.

A chart showing the annual number of new Venezuelan asylum claims and total Venezuelan international students in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. [47]

However, per UNHCR data [48] and as the corresponding figure shows, the number of new Venezuelan asylum claims quadrupled from 2015 to 2017, eclipsing Chinese claims. By year’s end in 2017, there were nearly 59,000 pending decisions on Venezuelan asylum cases total, from 2017 and previous years. In June 2018 alone, there were 7,669 applications for asylum filed by Venezuelans, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. This amounts to more than one-quarter of all applicants for asylum from all countries that month, and nearly 1,000 applicants more than Salvadorans, who filed the next highest number. The number of asylum applications from Venezuelans is clearly rising.

According to a Washington Post [49] article, Venezuelans have experienced far more success with the asylum process compared with Central Americans, who have received more news coverage so far. This may be, in part, due to the fact that a socialist government (modeled on the Cuban regime) is at the root of the country’s problems. Cuban Americans who fled the Castro regime, or whose relatives fled, and who live in South Florida where a large proportion of Venezuelans have settled, are sympathetic to Venezuelan asylum seekers, according to the article.

This politically influential group, which includes Senator Marco Rubio, has been able to advocate on behalf of Venezuelans somewhat successfully. Additionally, unlike Central Americans, who largely cross the southern border without authorization, many Venezuelans arrive in the U.S. on tourist and business visas and then apply for asylum. There is also a history, beginning during the Chávez years, of wealthy Venezuelans settling in the U.S. and buying luxury condos in Miami. But now arriving is a significant number of middle- and upper-middle-class professionals in industries such as health care and education, the article states.

However, DHS data may paint a slightly different picture, and the Trump administration is in general trying to make it more difficult for asylum seekers [50] to stay in the U.S. and gain status. In 2016, only 328 Venezuelans were granted affirmative asylum,5 [51] according to DHS data [52].

The U.S. News & World Report also notes [53] that there has been an increase in deportations of Venezuelans, who are reportedly often shocked when their asylum claims are denied, because they believe that the Maduro government is seen as a foe of the Trump administration. This belief may be rooted in the fact that Venezuelan officials, not ordinary citizens, were targeted in Trump’s revised travel ban [54] (aimed largely at majority Muslim countries), and that Trump has talked about invading Venezuela [55] to overthrow Maduro, among other things. (So far, Trump’s aides have persuaded him not to pursue the idea.) Also, the administration has revoked the legal Temporary Protected Status (TPS) [56] granted to individuals in the U.S. from three specific countries in crisis: El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua. There has been no indication that TPS will be granted to people from other distressed countries, including Venezuela [57].

As mentioned earlier, Venezuelan immigrants to the U.S. have historically been well educated, often taking professional jobs. A 2013 Pew Research Center analysis [58] found that Venezuelans were, on average, more highly educated than the overall U.S. population, with about half of Venezuelans 25 and older holding bachelor’s degrees. By comparison, only about 30 percent of the overall U.S. population held a bachelor’s degree.

In terms of international students [59]—that is, those in the U.S. on a student visa—during the 2016/17 academic year, 8,540 Venezuelan students studied in the U.S., 61.8 percent at the undergraduate level. These numbers have mostly increased each year. From 2010/11 to 2016/17, there was a 55.6 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans on student visas in the U.S. So far, Venezuela’s many problems have not seemed to slow down the number of students coming to the U.S.

Venezuelan Asylum Seekers and Students in Canada

Compared with the U.S., Canada has received a much smaller but still significant number of asylum seekers from Venezuela. According to data [60] from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), Venezuela was the 11th top sending country of asylum seekers as measured by new, processed, and pending claims: 2,801 in total. However, when looking at new claims in 2017, Venezuela is the ninth top sending country, with 1,240, which is more than double the new claims in 2016.

A chart showing the annual number of new Venezuelan asylum claims and total Venezuelan international students in Canada between 2013 and 2017. [61]

As of June, Venezuela was the ninth top sending country overall (new, processed, and pending claims) in 2018, with 588 new referrals. In both 2017 and 2018, Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, which itself saw years of unrest until relatively recently, originated more asylum seekers than Venezuela. Two other countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti and Mexico, also sent more asylum seekers to Canada.

As the crisis continues and Venezuelans face obstacles to obtaining asylum in other countries, they may turn in increasing numbers to Canada, particularly as they may hear about the country’s generosity with other groups, such as Syrians. It’s unclear, however, just how generous Canada’s system is toward Venezuelans, and if it will be so in the future. This question is particularly pertinent given the upcoming 2019 federal election [62], as immigration will most likely be an important issue.

The Canadian Council for Refugees calculated the recognition rate [63]—that is, the rate at which asylum claims are considered valid—of Venezuelan asylum claims in 2017, at 79.4 percent.6 [64] This is notably lower than the rate of claims made by individuals from other distressed countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, at 98.2 percent and 98.3 percent. This discrepancy is likely related to the fact that most host countries do not recognize Venezuelans as official refugees [33]. In many cases they are labeled “migrants” or “economic migrants.”

At the same time, the recognition rate for Venezuela is certainly not the lowest. Mexican claims, for example, are recognized at a rate of only 26.3 percent. The CBC, however, reported [65] that the visa refusal rate for Venezuelans has increased even as the application rate for visas to Canada has stayed roughly the same. Criticism of the refusal rate prompted Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to declare that there was no politically motivated strategy in effect to decrease the number of visas granted to Venezuelans.

In general, the government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a tough stance [66] against the Venezuelan government. It has joined five South American countries—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru—in requesting that the International Criminal Court investigate Maduro and his regime. Canada has also imposed sanctions [67] on a small number of Venezuelan officials. At the same time, the Canadian government is providing aid [68] through such organizations as the World Food Programme.

Venezuela is also not a significant source country of students for Canada; it sends many more students to the U.S. In 2017, Venezuela sent 1,695 students to Canada, making it the 30th top sending country, behind countries such as Cameroon, Tunisia, and Ukraine, according to IRCC data [69]. In fact, the total number of Venezuelan students was higher in 2016, at 1,920. It’s telling that there aren’t much more data about Venezuelan students in Canada.

Challenges Potentially Facing Venezuelan Students

Whether they arrive as asylum seekers, on international student visas, or through other means, Venezuelan students may face difficulty entering higher education in North America (or elsewhere). Their legal status may be an issue, particularly for those seeking asylum. However, there are other obstacles directly related to accessing higher education.

An immediate challenge in the admissions process may be related to academic documentation. At World Education Services (WES) [70], we have experienced some trouble receiving verification of credentials from Venezuelan institutions.7 [71] This difficulty certainly stems from the tough circumstances in which institutions find themselves and the instability nationwide. Host institutions may want to think about using alternative procedures for Venezuelan students when home institutions are not able to send or verify the official documents needed for admissions or to transfer credits.

For example, institutions may consider working with unofficial documents, such as photocopies of transcripts, which students have brought along with them. There are various ways to corroborate student claims about their educational history, as outlined in a report from WES [72]. WES successfully tested these methods through a pilot project with Syrian refugees in Canada [73]. An outgrowth of that project, the WES Gateway Program [74], was recently launched in Canada. This new program assesses the credentials of eligible individuals from seven countries who have been displaced because of adverse circumstances in their country of education, and who have only non-verifiable or incomplete academic documentation. Venezuela is one of the seven countries.

A second and likely greater challenge that perhaps most Venezuelan students will face is financing. Even students of means may encounter difficulty accessing their funds in Venezuela and converting them to foreign currency, especially U.S. dollars. Venezuelan students abroad confronted this problem as far back as 2003 [75], when the Venezuelan government forced them to submit copious amounts of paperwork in order to access the best exchange rate from the government. Later, the government further restricted these exchange rates to students studying one of 172 approved subjects. Suddenly, in 2014, the government began to deny applications en masse—likely an effort to control the flow of money out of the country. It effectively barred Venezuelan students abroad from accessing their own money.

This difficulty has apparently not been resolved. Students studying in Calgary area universities [76] and in Québec [77], for example, have indicated that they have trouble accessing bank account balances back home. A Venezuelan student studying in Ireland reported the same problem [78] to an Irish publication. There have been reports of Venezuelan students abroad turning to the black market to access foreign currency to pay their tuition and living expenses.

Finally, many of these students may come to North America having experienced trauma. A comprehensive review of the medical literature [79], particularly in Canada, found that refugees’ mental health begins eroding from the time problems start in their home countries to integration in a new country, and that trauma and depression are not uncommon. Once settled in a new country, refugees may experience declines in mental health due to their immigration status, employment status, and loss of the robust social networks they enjoyed back home. Though not officially refugees, many Venezuelan higher education students may develop similar difficulties. On a related note, Reuters has reported [80] that Venezuelan children are suffering from psychosocial problems as well, particularly anxiety.

What the Future May Hold

In a state of nearly complete economic and societal crisis, Venezuela is unlikely to improve anytime soon, and it may get much worse. As a result, Venezuelans of all classes will continue to pour out of the country. Because of the distance and resources required to leave, higher income, better-resourced Venezuelans are more likely to migrate to Canada and the U.S. and connect with family already there. These individuals are more likely to be well educated and may need to attend a higher education institute or return to school, whether to complete a first degree or to earn a Canadian or U.S. credential to return to their profession in their new host country.

1. [81] See, for example, The Economist, (2014, September 20), Of oil and coconut water: probably the world’s most mismanaged economy, The Economist, retrieved from https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2014/09/20/of-oil-and-coconut-water [82].

2. [83] Emphasis original

3. [84] Venezuela, along with many other South American countries, frequently invokes the name [85] of 19th century hero Simón Bolívar, who helped lead much of South America to independence from Spain. Chávez styled himself a successor to Bolívar, often referring to his “revolution” as the “Bolivarian Revolution.” He even gave the country the new name of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

4. [86] Host nations supply data to UNHCR at different times. As a result, most national figures for asylum claims by Venezuelans are not directly comparable, though most data come from mid-2018 or later.

5. [87] Affirmative asylum refers to asylum cases granted on first hearing of the case.

6. [88] See Table 2.2, http://ccrweb.ca/en/2017-refugee-claim-data [63].

7. [89] A special thanks to Carlos Monroy for his insights.