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World U.N. pleads for more help to relieve Venezuelan refugee crisis

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi speaks with the media after a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, at the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Santiago, Chile, Aug/ 13, 2019.

Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi appealed on Sunday for more humanitarian aid for Venezuelan refugees pouring into neighbouring countries where they are overwhelming social services and sparking local tensions.

Grandi had planned to visit the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima this weekend, but authorities advised him to cancel due to protests by residents unhappy with the arrival of more than 500 Venezuelans a day.

Pacaraima residents closed shops on Saturday and marched through the streets to shouts of “Out with the Venezuelans,” “Pacaraima is ours,” “Out with the U.N.,” and “Brazil for Brazilians.”

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The UNHCR estimates 4.3 million Venezuelans have fled economic and political turmoil in their country, mainly to Colombia where there are 1.2 million and to Peru, Chile and Ecuador. Some 180,000 have stayed in Brazil.

The U.N. and NGOs put out a humanitarian appeal for $770 million at the start of the year and has received less than $180 million, Grandi said in a telephone interview after visiting Chile and Brazil.

“This is really one of the most underfunded humanitarian appeals in the world for one of the biggest crises,” he said.

Financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are engaged but need to speed up their help, he said, to help sustain health and education systems.

“We protect the more vulnerable, but the rest has to be done by bigger actors with more money, and I don’t see that happening yet anywhere in the region,” he said.

Grandi said there were signs of anti-immigrant sentiment spreading across the region, reflected in mounting restrictions on the movement of Venezuelans in Andean countries.

But he praised Chile, which has received 400,000 Venezuelans, for granting safe passage and a guarantee of asylum.

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He also lauded the Brazilian Army for a “particularly good and very humane” operation to receive Venezuelan migrants in the northern border state of Roraima, Brazil’s poorest, from where they are being relocated to other parts of the country.

Grandi said relocation had to be sped up because the refugee crisis was overburdening fragile services in the Roraima capital of Boa Vista, where thousands sleep in the street every night because shelters are full up.

Without more aid, Grandi warned of growing hostility towards Venezuelans.

“In Boa Vista, I made an appeal for politicians to be balanced and act responsibly, and not use the unrest that could trigger forces bigger than anybody can control,” he said.

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