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Cities Need to Welcome—Not Resist—Refugees

A surge in migrants has fueled populist backlashes in cities around the world. But urban areas have a key role to play in mitigating the crisis.
Venezuelan refugees arrive at Boa Vista Airport in Brazil.
Venezuelan refugees arrive at Boa Vista Airport in Brazil.Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Venezuela´s monumental political and economic crisis is threatening to bring cities across Latin America to their knees. More than 2.3 million Venezuelans—roughly 7 percent of the country´s population—have fled since 2014. Many are seeking sanctuary in towns and cities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. At one point earlier this year, up to 5,000 asylum seekers and forced migrants were crossing the Venezuelan border every day; many of them ended up on the streets of South America´s poorest border towns, which are ill-prepared to handle them.

Even a comparatively modest number of new arrivals can trigger a massive political backlash in hosting countries. Take the case of the roughly 56,000 Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Brazil since 2015, around two percent of the total number of migrants fleeing the country. As The Guardian recently reported, newcomers are overwhelming city services in places like Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state. State authorities claim that crimes shot-up by 132 percent and visits to health clinics surged by 6,500 percent since 2015, with migrants singled out for blame.

Levels of animosity against migrants in Brazil’s frontier towns are also spiraling sharply, with attacks against Venezuelan migrants on the increase. Last month, a Venezuelan migrant was killed in the Brazilian city of Paracaima amid accusations of robbery by local residents. Earlier this year, 50 Venezuelans were expelled from Mucajai, in Roraima state, and another migrant was killed in Rorainópolis, a town nearby. Amid growing unrest, the Brazilian armed forces were hastily deployed to keep the peace.

In a hotly contested election year, some of Brazil´s right-wing politicians are taking advantage of the souring public mood to blame all the country’s ills on new arrivals. The state government of Roraima, for example, illegally closed its border with Venezuela, before being forced to re-open it by the Supreme Court just 15 hours later. Municipal officials in some cities are requiring passports to access services. Similar measures are being introduced in cities in neighboring Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where a surge in migrant flows is fueling waves of populist sentiment.