UN says an estimated 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans had fled the crisis-wracked country as of June, mainly to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, the United Nations said Tuesday.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that those fleeing — about 7 percent of Venezuela’s 32.8 million people — cite lack of food as the main reason for leaving. U.N. humanitarian officials report that 1.3 million of those who fled were “suffering from malnourishment,” he said.

Oil-rich Venezuela has been sinking deeper into an economic and political crisis. Hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine are battering the country, and the International Monetary Fund projects inflation could top 1 million percent by year’s end.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro often blames Venezuela’s poor economy on what he claims is an economic war being waged by the United States and Europe. Despite widespread discontent over the country’s economic and political problems, he won a second six-year term as president in a May election that his leading challenger and many nations have not recognized as legitimate.

Dujarric said severe shortages of basic medicines and medical supplies in Venezuela “have led to a sharp deterioration of the quality of hospitals.”

U.N. officials say more than 100,000 HIV patients are at risk due to lack of access to necessary medication, the U.N. spokesman said. Formerly eradicated diseases including measles, malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria “are present and on the rise,” he added.

As a result of the dire economic and health care situation, rising numbers of Venezuelans are joining in an exodus that has set off alarms across Latin America.

According to a report cited by the International Organization for Migration in April, population outflows from Venezuela “considerably increased” in recent years, with an estimated 1.6 million Venezuelans abroad in 2017 compared with 700,000 in 2015.

Of the 1.6 million, it said approximately 885,000 were in South America, 308,000 in North America, 78,000 in Central America, 21,000 in the Caribbean and the rest scattered elsewhere.

The exodus has been more dramatic this year.

Last week, Ecuador declared a state of emergency in three of its provinces in an effort to cope with the growing influx of migrants from Venezuela. The Foreign Ministry said up to 4,000 Venezuelans are seeking entry into Ecuador each day.

Before leaving office Aug. 2, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos granted 440,000 refugees from Venezuela temporary residency permits for two years and urged Maduro’s government to stem the spreading humanitarian crisis.

Dujarric said U.N. and humanitarian agencies report that Venezuelan migrants need assistance with their legal status, documentation, shelter and access to health care and other basic services.

U.N. agencies are helping and neighboring countries are “showing great generosity,” he said. “We would hope that other countries who are able to would also help and support those countries which are helping refugees.”