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A sign that reads "There is no water" (top L) is seen at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela.  © 2018 REUTERS/Marco Bello

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should recognize the increased risk COVID-19 poses in Venezuela and urgently designate Venezuelans in the US for temporary protection, Human Rights Watch said today. Companion bills have been introduced in the US House and Senate that would designate Venezuelans in the US for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months, but neither has passed the full Congress.  

A government crackdown in Venezuela has led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, prosecutions of hundreds of civilians by military courts, torture and other abuses of detainees, extrajudicial killings, and short-term enforced disappearances. The abuses have helped fuel a massive flight from the country. Venezuela also faces a humanitarian emergency that makes it grossly unprepared to deal with the pandemic, which will add to the burden on the health system and could lead to further increases in illness and death from vaccine-preventable or treatable causes.

“Now is not the time to deport Venezuelans,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “They need temporary protection because they cannot return safely to Venezuela at this time.”

As of April 14, 2020, Venezuela had 189 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The real number is most likely much higher, given the limited availability of testing, the government’s lack of transparency in providing official epidemiological data, overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, and the widespread problem of limited access to water in hospitals and homes.

More than 4.9 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, according to the United Nations. The vast majority are in Latin America or the Caribbean. As of March 2020, more than 108,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers were in the United States. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in June 2019 that about 200,000 Venezuelan nationals in the US would qualify for TPS.

Temporary Protected Status is intended to protect nationals and habitual residents of countries temporarily experiencing extraordinary conditions from being returned to those countries if they are not able to return in safety. Unlike asylum, which puts a person on a pathway to permanent protection, Temporary Protected Status does not require a person to establish a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Instead, it designates members of a nationality group for protection because they cannot return in safety due to generalized, temporary conditions in their home country.

Human Rights Watch research has shown that long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s health system was in utter collapse, with increased levels of maternal and infant mortality; the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles and diphtheria; and dramatic surges in infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Although Venezuelan authorities stopped publishing official data on nutrition years ago, Venezuelan organizations and universities have documented high levels of food insecurity and child malnutrition.

The responsibility for the humanitarian emergency, which has deepened since 2017, lies largely with Venezuelan authorities, Human Rights Watch said. During Nicolás Maduro’s presidency, the authorities have failed to address the crisis while making heavy-handed attempts to deny and conceal its severity. They have harassed and persecuted health professionals who question the government’s failure to address the humanitarian emergency and the pandemic.

The collapse of the health system and the suppression of public health data undermine Venezuela’s ability to respond to COVID-19. At 180 out of 195, Venezuela ranks among the countries least prepared to respond rapidly and mitigate the spread of an epidemic in the 2019 Global Health Security Index – and it ranks last among Latin American countries.

The specific mortality rate for COVID-19 is uncertain and likely to vary according to the availability of treatment among other factors but has been estimated to be between 1 and 3 percent. The death rate would most likely be higher in Venezuela, where there is no capacity for complex care due to a lack of basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, intensive care beds, and respirators, and where healthcare providers’ lack of access even to water prevents them from washing their hands, vital to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Human Rights Watch first said in March 2019 that the US should grant TPS to Venezuelans. Human Rights Watch has also urged Venezuela’s neighbors to provide region-wide temporary protection that would grant all Venezuelans legal status for a fixed period, at least until decisions are issued on their individual claims for protection.

“The Trump administration should grant TPS to Venezuelans without being directed to do so by Congress,” Frelick said. “However, if the administration fails to act promptly, Congress should step in and grant TPS to Venezuelans for the next 18 months.”

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