Venezuelans file 1 in 5 asylum claims

LIMA, Peru -- When Johan Alvarez was unable to provide more than one meal a day for his young family he knew it was time to leave Venezuela.

With his wife and infant son, the 25-year-old embarked on a lengthy journey by bus through three nations to reach Peru earlier this year.

Now they are among a growing swell of Venezuelans asking to be recognized as refugees.

A United Nations report released Wednesday found Venezuelans represent the largest group worldwide filing new asylum claims. Those fleeing the troubled South American nation made more than one in five of all asylum requests in 2018, higher than the number of claims made by people escaping Afghanistan and Syria.

But Venezuela is not in the midst of war, and many foreign governments are reluctant to recognize the migrants as refugees.

As Venezuela's crisis drags on, the number fleeing is rising by alarming numbers. The United Nations estimated there are 4 million Venezuelans living abroad -- a quarter of whom have fled since November. The Organization of American States estimated the number could reach 7.5 million by the end of 2020.

The widely used definition of refugee is someone who has fled his or her homeland because of persecution, war or violence.

Asylum claimants typically have to show they cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group.

But a more encompassing definition in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration includes people fleeing hunger and poverty resulting from the breakdown of rule of law -- conditions which a much wider group of Venezuelans are experiencing.

To date, more than 460,000 Venezuelans have sought asylum, including nearly 350,000 in 2018 alone, according to the U.N. A large number of those claims are being filed in Peru, where some 800,000 Venezuelans now reside.