Venezuela has hit a worrying milestone. The United Nations says more than 4 million refugees and migrants have left the country, which is suffering from political chaos, food shortages and hyperinflation.
The U.N. has called this exodus the "largest in the recently history of Latin American and the Caribbean."
"The pace of the outflow from Venezuela has been staggering," the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration said in a joint statement.
The numbers make it clear that the pace is escalating. The U.N. says one million people have left since November 2018. And the high rate of departure is a recent development: at the end of 2015, the U.N. says there were about 695,000 migrants and refugees from Venezuela.
Most of the people who have left Venezuela remain in Latin America. Colombia is hosting the largest number of them, with 1.3 million, and Peru is the next-largest, with some 768,000. Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina all are hosting more than 100,000, the U.N. says.
"These alarming figures highlight the urgent need to support host communities in the receiving countries," Eduardo Stein, joint UNHCR-IOM Special Representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, said in a statement. "Latin American and Caribbean countries are doing their part to respond to this unprecedented crisis but they cannot be expected to continue doing it without international help."
In November, eight countries from the region met in Quito and signed an agreement to work together to work together on a humanitarian response to the refugee and migrant influx.
NPR journalists have spent time with Venezuelans fleeing their country and aid workers trying to help them in Colombia.
"What used to be primarily migrant men looking for jobs over the border, relief workers say, are now increasingly groups made up of women and children — whole families who feel they have no choice but to go. By foot," reported a team from NPR's All Things Considered. "Those traveling on foot, as most are, have been given a collective name: los Caminantes."
People crossing the border are often without any savings because of the hyperinflation. They walk for miles – in some cases, hundreds of miles – as our team reported.
"I had to cross the border to find food for my children," said 31-year-old Mariu Materano, who is traveling with four of her kids. "I used to have a job running a small cafeteria at the university, but all of that ended when the economy in Venezuela collapsed."
In March, UNHCR opened Colombia's first refugee camp near its border with Colombia. The agency calls it an "integrated assistance center." Tents with the blue UNHCR logos stand in neat rows. As reporter John Otis tells NPR, "Colombian officials have provided temporary shelters for Venezuelan before but have tried to avoid building formal refugee camps."
Venezuela is in the middle of a leadership struggle, with authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro facing challenges from opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has been recognized as Venezuela's leader by many countries, including the United States.
The two sides have recently entered into talks in Oslo, Norway, but they have not produced significant results.
"Time is not on our side," Guaidó said in a recent NPR interview. "Time is running against all Venezuelans."
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