LIMA, Peru – As more Venezuelans fleeing the economic and political crisis in their homeland arrive daily in Peru, the Peruvian government readily acknowledges it can’t keep up with the applications for temporary or permanent residency.
“The situation changed our life,” said Roxana del Águila Tuesta, Peru’s national superintendent of migrations. “Before, we didn’t have this immigration situation in Peru.”
By March, more than 700,000 Venezuelans had entered Peru and an estimated 161,000 had applied for political asylum — a protective immigration status that can lead to legal permanent residency, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As of mid-March, fewer than 700 had been granted.
“It seems like a small number,” said Regina de la Portilla, the public information officer for the UNHCR in Latin America, “But you have to bear in mind that Peru is not a country used to receiving asylum seekers, so their system was small in scale.”
In fact, historically, people were more likely to leave Peru than move there. A disruptive war between the government and the Maoist group Shining Path in the 1990s and early 2000s — along with poverty, especially in rural areas — spurred 2.4 million Peruvians to migrate over the past 22 years, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In a role reversal, Peru now hosts hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans looking for relief from the turmoil in their own country. In doing so, Peru also has become an example of how to handle migrants in a welcoming, humanitarian way, according to international aid workers and U.S. Embassy officials in Lima.
Still, Peru faces major challenges in dealing with the influx, and its immigration system has only processed a small fraction of the migrants who have arrived since 2015. Meanwhile, numbers continue to grow and have overwhelmed the system. By 2020, according to the Organization of American States, there will be up to 8.2 million displaced Venezuelans worldwide, and Peru is expected to remain a major destination for resettlement.
In early 2017, as the number of migrants increased, the Peruvian government began offering Venezuelans the Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP), a temporary residency permit that allowed them to work. Popular among displaced Venezuelans, the PTP grants them the chance to obtain their greatest collective need: income.
Eventually, the Peruvian government set Oct. 31, 2018, as the cutoff date to get a PTP. Newly arriving Venezuelans have three options: apply for asylum, which could open a path to permanent residency; apply for a tourist visa; or remain undocumented.
To complicate matters further, not all Venezuelan migrants will qualify for asylum, even if they apply.
The government in Lima follows the international laws set by the 1951 Refugee Convention of the Geneva Conventions, which determined that asylum is granted to refugees, or individuals who must flee their native nations to escape conflict or oppression and fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
Peru is additionally bound by the 1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, a regional agreement that recognizes the rights of Latin American countries to grant political asylum to those who request it.
Asylum seekers in the country must satisfy the terms of either the Caracas or Geneva conventions.
De la Portilla encourages interested migrants to apply for asylum because of the benefits offered.
“As soon as you’re an asylum seeker, you also have the right to work legally, formally, as well as study, so you can remain in the country regularly,” she said. “And then, of course, be patient because we’re talking about 161,000 people going through a process where they actually sit down and discuss case-by-case. So people need to be patient and understand that the system is doing everything they can to move as fast as they can.”
Many Venezuelans don’t apply for asylum because they don’t think it’s attainable. Most have either been granted the PTP or are awaiting action on their applications.
Others remain in the country illegally with minimal threat of deportation — at least until recently. In April, for the first time, Peru deported more than 40 individuals back to Venezuela for either not disclosing criminal records during their residency application processes or staying in Peru illegally, according to a statement by Interior Minister Carlos Moran.
For the time being, government officials are standing by the current immigration system.
“We do not think about changing the process because that would mean changing the whole structure of our foreign policy,” said Ambassador Enrique Bustamante, who serves as director-general of Peruvian communities abroad and consular affairs within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “and the design and management of what it means to manage an immigration flow of that magnitude.”
The government is focused on the extensive backlog of those who have applied for the PTP and asylum. A branch of Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Special Commission for Refugees, is in charge of the national asylum process.
With up to 400 requests submitted daily in Lima, the registration system has malfunctioned often. After receiving aid from the UNHCR, the government recently launched an updated registration system to better manage the number of applications. A preregistration procedure at the Peruvian border also was established to determine the most at-risk migrants. The process includes distributing preliminary paperwork to asylum seekers for their initial entries and eventual claims processing.
Those seeking asylum must prove their cases. If declined, their appeals are handled in either the capital city’s office or one of 11 locations across Peru.