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Long-armed militia members stand guard at the metropolitan distributor of the Francisco Fajardo Highway during military exercises as part of the 'Escudo Bolivariano 2020' with participation of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela, Venezuelan National Guard (GNB), Army and National Bolivarian Militia on February 15, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela.Carolina Cabral/Getty Images

Ottawa should take a leadership role on the Venezuela crisis, including looking at taking in more refugees from that country, says the UN refugee agency’s new representative to Canada. The United Nations body predicts that, by the end of this year, the collapse of the Venezuelan economy will cause the same number of people to be displaced as have been by the war in Syria.

Facing widespread shortages of food and medicine, about 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since last October, with no prospects to return in the near future, according to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is the largest displacement of people in the recent history of Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Those are alarming levels of displacement,” said Rema Jamous Imseis, who took the helm of the UNHCR’s office in Canada earlier this month.

She said that Canada has played an “incredibly active role” on the political side of the Venezuelan crisis and has the potential to galvanize support in the region.

“We would really like to see Canada take a leadership role on the humanitarian side in the same way that they’ve done on the political side, and I think that’s a conversation I’m really looking forward to having with counterparts here,” she said.

Canada is active in the Lima Group, a regional bloc of countries working to find a peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis, and is holding a meeting of foreign ministers from the group in Gatineau next week.

Canada recognizes Juan Guaido as the interim leader of Venezuela, as Nicolas Maduro continues to refuse to cede power.

While Venezuelans flee their homes, Ms. Jamous Imseis said a similar scene continues to unfold on the other side of the world in Syria.

“It’s really important to take a look at that situation and try to draw some lessons from Syria to avoid some of the same outcomes and pitfalls that we have and are still grappling with today in Syria and in neighbouring countries,” she said.

Ms. Jamous Imseis said some of the lessons to take away from Syria when looking at the response to the crisis in Venezuela include co-ordinating on the ground from the outset and investing in program assistance early on in the conflict.

Last October, top officials from the United Nations refugee agency told The Globe and Mail that Canada should consider replicating aspects of its Syrian refugee-resettlement program for Venezuelans. In 2015, Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees and made it an early priority when the Liberals first formed government; Canada has since welcomed more than 40,000 Syrians.

Ms. Jamous Imseis said she believes it is “really important” to have that conversation, adding that resettlement is always going to be “high on the agenda.”

Global Affairs Canada has allocated more than $55-million in humanitarian, stabilization and development assistance to help in the response to the Venezuela crisis. That includes more than $18-million going toward humanitarian assistance to help vulnerable people meet basic needs, including in neighbouring countries.

Before taking up her post in Ottawa, Ms. Jamous Imseis previously served as deputy director of the UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa Bureau.

In addition to increasing support for Venezuela, Ms. Jamous Imseis said she is also keen on working with the Canadian government on improving education programs for refugee children and looking at how climate change affects displacement.

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