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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Venezuela is the refugee crisis no one saw coming

10,000 kilometres away from the disaster in the Mediterranean, another tragedy unfolds

Venezuelan migrants pass through Quito in Ecuador on their way to Peru. Jose Jacome / EPA
Venezuelan migrants pass through Quito in Ecuador on their way to Peru. Jose Jacome / EPA

For the past three years the world’s attention has been focused, and rightly so, on the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Few will ever forget the heartbreaking photograph of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Unscrupulous profiteers continue to ferry desperate people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to Europe and more than a thousand refugees have shared Alan’s fate so far this year alone. According to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency there are now 25.4 million refugees worldwide, including 6.3 million Syrians, 5.4 million Palestinians, 2.6 million Afghans and 2.4 million South Sudanese.

But to this list must now be added millions more, from an unexpected quarter.

Venezuela, transformed by the discovery of oil in the 20th century, was one of the region’s economic success stories. Today, following the collapse of oil prices in 2014, it is in meltdown. Rampant inflation is on course to hit one million per cent this year and many of its citizens are starving.

The UN says that this year more than 2.3 million Venezuelans – seven per cent – have fled, with more than half the refugees suffering from malnutrition. By some estimates, 35,000 a day are flooding into Colombia, which is struggling to cope with the one million people it has taken in since 2017. Ecuador, inundated by thousands daily, has declared a state of emergency and closed the border. In Brazil, tensions between locals and refugees are now escalating into violence.

To compound the sense that a true disaster is unfolding, the US Pentagon is to despatch a hospital ship to help with the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, blames the crisis on an “economic war” being waged by the US and Europe. Opponents say it is down to poor management and a failure to diversify away from reliance on oil. Whatever the cause, the crisis unfolding halfway around the world is evidence that the Middle East and North Africa have no monopoly on such tragedies.

It serves as a chilling reminder that even in the 21st century, catastrophic instability can erupt anywhere and at any time.