Understanding the Venezuelan refugee crisis – and how businesses can help

By Gideon Maltz
as published in The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on September 23, 2019

By Gideon Maltz

Latin America is experiencing the biggest refugee crisis in its history. Already, more than four million people have fled Venezuela and millions more could be displaced throughout the region in the coming years.

The Tent Partnership for Refugees, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes the private sector to improve the lives and livelihoods of refugees all over the world, recently commissioned new research to provide practical and actionable insights into the lives and livelihoods of Venezuelan refugees.

The research reveals that, while their immediate needs are being met, Venezuelans are poorly integrated into their host economies. While four in five refugees have found some form of work, their financial situations remain uncertain. More than 50 percent in both countries say that they are not earning a living wage and their skills are being underutilized, and only one in six Venezuelans work in the same field as they did in Venezuela.

The research shows that the Venezuelan refugee crisis is likely to grow substantially as Venezuelans continue to flee their home country in substantial numbers. About 60 percent of those interviewed reported that they plan to bring some or all of their family members out of Venezuela. In addition, Venezuelans who have already left the country are likely to remain displaced for many years to come, with those interviewed saying they will not return home as long as Nicolas Maduro or his allies remain in power, even if the economic situation improves (and even in the most optimistic scenario, one in five Venezuelan refugees reported that they would not return home – suggesting that close to a million Venezuelan refugees may be permanently displaced).

With refugees being displaced for such long periods of time, economic integration is critical. At the Tent Partnership for Refugees, we believe that the business community has a critical role to play in this effort. We’ve seen time and again that businesses create opportunities for refugees to contribute economically and become productive members of their host communities when they take steps to hire refugees, integrate them into their supply chains, invest in refugee entrepreneurs, and deliver goods and services to refugee customers. And this is also good for business – refugees are some of the most highly motivated and loyal employees, and research shows that they have higher retention rates than non-refugee employees.

At this year’s UN General Assembly, the business community came out in force to show their support for refugees in Latin America through action – by announcing over 20 commitments to help Venezuelan refugees at the Tent’s Latin American Business Summit on Refugees. These commitments illustrate the diversity of ways in which businesses can get involved – in Latin America and beyond.

In Colombia, which has welcomed over 1.3 million Venezuelan refugees, Bancamia, an entity of the BBVA Microfinance Foundation, committed to providing providing loans, bank accounts, and insurance products to 200 Venezuelan entrepreneurs in Colombia by 2020. As only 15 percent of Venezuelans in Colombia have access to banking services – a key barrier to economic integration – these financial services, combined with financial education courses, will help support the growth of Venezuelan-owned small businesses in Colombia.

Telecommunications company Telefonica also committed to support Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, by providing up to 10,000 of them access to affordable telecommunications services, including by providing internet hotspots at shelters for Venezuelans and offering subsidized mobile plans.

Food services and facilities management company Sodexo committed to hire an additional 300 refugees across their operations in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Peru by 2021. Sodexo will also provide support such as language training and professional development coaching to ensure their refugee employees succeed at the company. Sodexo’s hiring goal in Latin America builds on a commitment the company made last year to hire 300 refugees globally; after successfully hitting that target, Sodexo has doubled down on their original commitment.

We hope these exemplary initiatives and others like them will inspire even more companies to step up to address the refugee crisis in Latin America. Collectively, we will have the greatest impact when we start seeing refugees not as victims, but as economically productive workers, entrepreneurs, and customers. This approach is good for refugees, good for the communities that host them, and good for business.


As published for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation


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