International Policy Digest

Agência Lusa
World News /20 Jan 2020

Venezuelans’ Plight Illustrates Why Passports Should be a Right, not a Luxury

As hopes fade for a quick resolution to Venezuela’s economic collapse, more and more Venezuelans are fleeing the sinking ship. According to recent estimates from the United Nations Refugee Agency, as many as 6.5 million Venezuelans will have emigrated by the end of this year—a staggering figure which would make Venezuela’s refugee crisis the worst in the world, surpassing even Syria’s catastrophic condition.

International assistance per capita, meanwhile, has proved woefully disproportionate. Refugee response efforts have spent some $1,500 to help each Syrian refugee, and only $125 on their Venezuelan counterparts, making Venezuelans’ upheaval the most underfunded in modern history. While this enormous diaspora faces numerous challenges, one of the greatest ones has so far been overlooked: many Venezuelan citizens’ chances of a new, better life are crippled by the simple fact that they do not have valid passports. Indeed, the extraordinary lengths to which Venezuelans have to go to obtain travel documents—as well as the myriad consequences of not having them—highlights why access to identity documents should be a right, not a luxury.

Crippled computer systems, supply shortages, and a thriving black market

Given the state Venezuela is in—children are routinely fainting in school lessons after not having eaten in days, the most basic medicines are nowhere to be found and hyperinflation is so out of control that paper bills are literally worth less than the paper and ink used to manufacture them—it’s not surprising that passports are difficult to obtain.

That lack of access, however, existed long before the situation in Venezuela spiraled from bad to worse. Indeed, SAIME—the Venezuelan government department in charge of issuing identity documents— suspended passport appointment indefinitely back in 2017 due to a “shortage of materials.” The computer systems supposed to process Venezuelans’ passport applications were failing even before that, frequently glitching and crashing. “It’s as if I had never attended the appointment,” one woman—who had been waiting months for her passport to arrive so she could go join her daughter in Spain—explained after her data was spontaneously deleted from the computer system.

With Venezuela already suffering from years-long shortages of essential items, the passport agency is pointing to dwindling plastic and paper supplies to justify what has become an effective travel ban for Venezuelan citizens. The growth of the passport black market, however, paints a much more sinister picture.

Even the legal price of a new passport is outside many Venezuelans’ purview. The fee is currently pegged at two “Petros”—the dubious cryptocurrency Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is attempting to replace the near-worthless bolivar with—which, at roughly $115, is a heavy burden in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $18.

In reality, however, the price for travel documents is far higher than that. Tired of waiting indefinitely for a worse-than-underperforming system, some Venezuelans are forced to pay thousands of dollars in bribes to officials willing to “speed up” the process.

Devastating consequences of the passport crisis

Without valid identity documents, even those Venezuelans who make it out of the country are often excluded from social services in their new homes, unable to find above-the-table work, and generally marginalised. In Ecuador, for example, a staggering 88.1% of Venezuelan asylum-seekers are employed informally, earning less than the official minimum wage. Compounding their plight, media reporting has proved effective in stoking a spike in xenophobia toward Venezuelans, who have even been blamed for the ongoing anti-government protests in Quito.

Some countries, like Canada and Colombia, have tried to tackle the passport crisis by allowing Venezuelan refugees to use an expired passport, but this is far from an ideal solution. For one thing, such an initiative excludes those who have never actually held a passport, the situation which many Venezuelans currently find themselves in.

Secondly, loosened passport requirements invariably risk the security of host countries, particularly given that rogue Venezuelan officials have reportedly been selling Venezuelan passports to non-citizens for cash. According to a year-long investigation from CNN, SAIME was auctioning off passports to individuals with extremely dubious connections while genuine Venezuelan citizens were unable to acquire identity documents.

One document reviewed as part of the investigation links the country’s former Vice President Tareck El Aissami to 173 identity documents issued to individuals from the Middle East, including non-citizens with connections to terrorist group Hezbollah. Just last week, the U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on SAIME’s current and former directors, Gustavo Adolfo Vizcaino Gil and Juan Carlos Dugarte, for “corruptly [enriching] themselves at the expense of Venezuelans seeking passport services.”

Right to a secure identity

This toxic mix of corruption, crippled computer systems, and rising costs have made obtaining a passport an impossible dream for most Venezuelans—and should underline to the rest of the world how reasonable access to secure, trustworthy identity documents should be considered a fundamental right for citizens of any country. Indeed, other countries in South America have already taken this lesson to heart.

In Peru, for example, the government in Lima has since 2016 relied on France’s IN Groupe (formerly known as Imprimerie Nationale) for its e-Passports. These state-of-the-art passports, produced by a leading global supplier, have played a major role in helping Peru gain visa-free access to Europe’s Schengen zone. Peru’s biometric passports are secure, thanks to their watermarks, micro lettering, inlay, UV and rainbow printing, and secure inks, and yet the procedure to acquire one is a remarkable contrast from the bureaucratic nightmare Venezuelans are used to. Peruvian passports, among the cheapest in Latin America, can be obtained in a single day.

Bolivia has since mirrored Peru’s move, with its e-Passports, also issued by IN Groupe, receiving the Latin American “Best ID Document” award earlier this year thanks to security features including iridescent inks and anti-skimming technology.

Under better circumstances and a more transparent, competent government, Venezuelans looking to travel or work abroad would be able to rely on the types of reliable document their neighbors elsewhere on the continent have come to take for granted. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis has demonstrated in sharp relief the consequences of a document-deprived population.