Venezuela migrant help promised as region struggles to cope

BRUSSELS (AP) — Governments, aid agencies and charity groups vowed Tuesday to boost their efforts to help Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-wracked country, and to assist neighboring communities struggling to host them, as refugee numbers look set to exceed those caused by the Syrian war.

At a “solidarity conference” in Brussels meant to raise awareness about the plight of more than 4.5 million people who’ve fled in recent years to escape low wages, failing basic services and a lack of security, countries pledged around 120 million euros ($133 million) in new support.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the funding effort “is quite remarkable” given that the two-day meeting was aimed at drawing international attention to Latin America’s biggest exodus in recent memory and not meant to raise money.

Mogherini urged the international community to put the plight of Venezuelans high on its agenda, and not to give in to donor fatigue.

“It’s the best investment we can do,” she told reporters. “If we had invested a little bit, to support the Syrian migrant crisis, or other migrant crises, early in the process, we would have not only saved lives but also saved money.”

The South American nation of roughly 30 million people is gripped by a deepening political and economic crisis under President Nicolás Maduro. Citizens live in fear of anything from violent street protests to massive power failures. The International Monetary Fund says inflation is expected to hit a staggering 200,000% this year.

Refugee agencies predict that the number of people fleeing the country could reach 6.5 million by the end of 2020; well beyond the estimated 5.6 million people who have left war-torn Syria since 2011.

About 85% of those who have fled remain in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia hosts the greatest number of refugees and migrants — an estimated 1.4 million Venezuelans — while Peru is sheltering some 860,000. Chile, Ecuador and Brazil have each taken in hundreds of thousands more.

But despite popular goodwill and many acts of charity, resentment is slowly rising among some citizens of Venezuela’s neighbors as money is spent to help the displaced.

“This humanitarian crisis has a name: Nicolás Maduro,” Peruvian Foreign Minister Gustavo Meza-Cuadra said during the conference, which involved around 120 delegations.

“This is not a simple case of a humanitarian emergency that can be handled with the typical measures,” Meza-Cuadra said, warning that the “crisis in Latin America could have an impact globally.”

Organizers hope the Brussels meeting will lead to a donor conference next year, but work on extra sanctions against Maduro and his associates also advanced in parallel over the course of the two days, officials said.

The U.S. has imposed measures in a bid to unseat Maduro, compounding the problems of Venezuela’s declining oil industry, even though it has the world’s largest oil reserves.

Last month, the EU stepped up its sanctions, adding seven members of Venezuela’s security and intelligence services to a list of 25 people under travel bans and whose assets have been frozen, but some, notably opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and many EU countries recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader, feel more should be done.

Guaidó's deputy foreign minister, Isadora Zubillaga, welcomed the “solidarity conference,” but said that such efforts alone are not enough.

“It’s very important not to lose sight of the origin of this crisis. This is not a natural disaster that happened in Venezuela. We haven’t had any tsunami or earthquake. This is a one-man-made crisis,” Zubillaga told The Associated Press.

“We’re going to surpass the Syria crisis, with no war and no catastrophe,” she said.