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Venezuela will be world's worst refugee crisis in 2020 — and most underfunded in modern history

The international community spent $7.4 billion on refugee efforts in the first 4 years of the Syrian crisis versus $580 million for Venezuelan refugees.
Image: Venezuelan migrants
Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia on Aug. 25, 2018.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the most underfunded in modern history, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institution published this week.

About 4.7 million Venezuelans, 16 percent of the country's population, have fled Venezuela since its economy suffered a 65 percent contraction in 2013, the largest outside of war in 45 years.

Venezuela is second only to Syria in terms of how many displaced people are living outside their country of origin. But estimates from the United Nations Refugee Agency show that if current trends continue, there could be as many as 6.5 million Venezuelans living outside of their country by 2020, far outpacing the speed of displacement seen in Syria with 6.7 million Syrians being pushed out of their birth nation.

And yet funding to aid this crisis affecting millions of Venezuelans and at least 17 host nations — the three largest being Colombia, Ecuador and Peru — has really been lagging.

The international community spent $7.4 billion on refugee response efforts in the first four years of the Syrian crisis. But the international community has only spent $580 million four years into the Venezuelan refugee crisis, according to Brookings. On a per capita basis, the international community has spent $1,500 to help each Syrian refugee and $125 per Venezuelan refugee.

Brookings experts said the international community has been able to get away with this by labeling the escalating catastrophe as a regional crisis instead of a global one, arguing that the Venezuelan economic collapse was not triggered by external forces or internal unrest and instead "was manufactured by those in power, and thus, was totally avoidable."

At the same time, organizations such as Hispanics in Philanthropy have been working on crowdfunding initiatives to help Venezuelan refugees worldwide while sounding the alarm over the crisis.

Countries like the U.S. have hesitated to label the Venezuelan refugee crisis a global one "because it is not directly impacting the U.S. yet," Nancy Santiago Negrón, vice president of strategic partnerships and communications at Hispanics in Philanthropy, told NBC News.

But that might quickly change since it is almost certain the number of Venezuelan refugees worldwide will reach 5 million next month, said Santiago Negrón.

Venezuela already surpassed China in becoming the No. 1 country of origin for those claiming asylum in the U.S., with nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applying for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2018.

Nearly one-third of all claims filed at USCIS come from Venezuelans, the most of any country by far, according to recent numbers.

Funding is crucial not only for immediate humanitarian needs but also to create successful refugee integration efforts in host communities. International financing can help strengthen local infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, roads and electricity as well as expand access to credit for local firms to help offset possible short-term negative labor market effects caused by the sudden labor supply inflow.

But analysts worry that lack of international funding to support host nations' integration efforts may soon backfire on a bigger scale. Countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Chile have already imposed barriers to entry for Venezuelans, which could cause the refugee crisis to spread to other regions.

Santiago Negrón said they are already seeing countries like Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago struggling to grapple with the growing crisis.

Colombia, the largest Venezuelan hosting nation, launched over $230 million in credit lines for infrastructure and private investment in areas with high refugee density.

The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have opened up financing to host governments to help support the additional strain on public works.

But given the scale of the Venezuelan displacement, these efforts may still fall short, meaning much more funding will be required to mitigate the crisis on a global scale.

"We know a lot of people and companies ready to help or intervene, but the challenge has been that people view this as a humanitarian crisis wrapped up in a political crisis," said Santiago Negrón. "We know people want to help human beings, but they don't necessarily want to get caught up in the politics."

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