By Vira Tarnavska and Verity McGivern
“At least we have food here,” Jorge Martínez*, 61, says with a sigh. During the bustling lunch hour, as Venezuelan adults and children rushed to line up for food at one of the 13 refugee shelters in Brazil’s Roraima State, Martínez sits down to share how he found himself here.
“I’m here waiting to get called for a job.” Martínez was a truck driver in Venezuela. But as conditions in Venezuela’s Bolívar State deteriorated, Martínez had a hard time finding work. Even when he had money, a decent meal was hard to find. Finally, in April, he felt that he had no choice but to flee. The last 100 kilometers, after crossing the Venezuela-Brazil border on his way to Roraima’s capital, Boa Vista, Martínez plodded on foot in the scorching 87°F/30°C heat. He spent his first 17 nights in Brazil sleeping on the street.
Thousands of Venezuelans like Martínez leave home every day, as the country sinks further into the crisis. Unlike those who fled in previous years, people leaving in recent months are increasingly poor and vulnerable. Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia reports recent Venezuelan arrivals “are mostly single mothers with young children and infants, and older adults.”
Martínez knew that leaving home would mean giving up everything that he’s worked to achieve his entire life—and starting from scratch. Yet staying in Venezuela was not an option.
Some 77% of older Venezuelans surveyed for a report published last month by CONVITE, an NGO that monitors the rights of older people, and HelpAge International, another group, said they could not obtain enough food. HelpAge International published a ranking of the situations of older people in 96 countries in 2015, and Venezuela ranked 76th, being one of the worst countries in which to grow old. Hunger, medicine shortages and a public health system in collapse are forcing older adults to join the 4.5 million Venezuelan refugees worldwide.
All exiles, regardless of age, want to rebuild a life. For older people, the building blocks of a new life—jobs, social networks, and affordable health care—are often out of reach. Martínez, for example, interviewed for a job two months after he arrived at the shelter, through a Brazilian federal government program that helps Venezuelans secure employment in other states so that they can relocate. He was still waiting to hear from the program three months after the interview.
The Brazilian general who directed that program told us in mid-October that “they [the companies] don’t hire people over the age of 40.” As far as he knew, none of over 1,200 Venezuelans who had found work through the program from April 2018 through September 2019 were older.
Older Venezuelans elsewhere in Latin America have told Human Rights Watch they can no longer collect their pensions. This has been confirmed by a 2018 survey of 300 Venezuelan retirees and pensioners in Argentina, which found that over 80% of those surveyed could not cash their pensions. Without a job or a pension, they are forced to rely on family members, many of whom also fled Venezuela and are struggling to find employment. After years of fending for themselves, they feel like a burden.
The Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, which entered into force in 2017, provides that states “shall develop specific approaches for older persons who are vulnerable … including … migrants.” In humanitarian emergencies, in particular, it urges “assistance measures specific to the needs of older persons.” It encourages facilitating “the recognition of benefits, social security contributions, and pension entitlements for migrant older persons.” Several countries hosting older Venezuelans, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, are signatories to the convention.
In September 2018, 11 countries receiving Venezuelans met in Quito, Ecuador, to develop a “regional strategy for long-term regularization of Venezuelan migrants and refugees,” which became known as the Quito Process. On November 14th and 15th, countries participating in a Quito Process meeting in Bogotá committed to regional coordination, in order to “ensure the safe, orderly and regular movement” of Venezuelans. They also recognized efforts undertaken by countries in the region “to attend to, receive, and integrate Venezuelan migrants and refugees, especially those in vulnerable situations.”
People of all ages deserve the chance to rebuild a shattered life. State leaders and international entities have an opportunity and responsibility to ensure that right. Latin American leaders should also work toward providing a safe reception and effective integration of Venezuelans in their countries. To do so, they need to consider the various needs of particular groups, including older people. Following the first Global Refugee Forum, held in Geneva this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should increase its efforts to promote the inclusion of the specific needs of older people in situations of displacement.
Disheartened and fatigued, Martínez sits in the steamy-hot Boa Vista shelter and expresses his heart’s desire: “I still feel I’m useful. What I would like the most is to work.” He deserves every chance to do so.
*Names have been changed.
Vira Tarnavska is with the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.
Verity McGivern is the humanitarian advocacy adviser at HelpAge International.