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Venezuelan refugee crisis faces a backlash across Latin America

Five thousand Venezuelans flee the economic collapse at home every day and resettle across Latin America, a region with a tradition of open borders. But now, countries are facing a backlash. This month, the governor of Roraima in northern Brazil sued the federal government, demanding it close the border and provide aid to states. Ernesto Londoño of The New York Times joins Megan Thompson for more.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Venezuela's economy is collapsing. There are food shortages and massive unemployment and little government support for its poorest residents. Starting in 2015, Venezuelans began fleeing to neighboring countries and now northern Brazil is facing a crisis as thousands of refugees arrive there each month.

    For a look at this underreported story, Ernesto Londoño, Brazil bureau chief for The New York Times, joins us now via Skype from Buenos Aries. I know you've spent time in this area of northern Brazil where thousands of Venezuelans are arriving. Can you just paint the picture for us, sort of the conditions like there?

  • ERNESTO LONDOÑO:

    Sure. I recently came back from a trip in Boa Vista, that's a city in northern Brazil and it's been one of the hubs in the region where desperate Venezuelans, who have been arriving in larger numbers, turned up. This is a migrant crisis that is years in the making. This is not entirely new but it has entered a critical stage. We're beginning to see people arriving who are penniless, who are often very sick and were out of options.

    In Boa Vista, which is a relatively small city roughly thousand people, other public areas such as parks and plazas had essentially become a makeshift homeless shelters. Venezuelans have put up tents, just basic camping tents, some are just sleeping under tarps or pieces of plastic. It is really a shocking scene. You see families, you see pregnant women who spend their days just walking around city trying to beg for food, trying to beg for a little money, trying to find work, and local officials are barely hoping to house just a few thousand people in formal shelters.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    How are the local officials responding to all this?

  • ERNESTO LONDOÑO:

    It's been a mixed bag I think across the board in Latin America, there's been a tradition of open borders, relatively speaking, and there's been a proud tradition of rising up to the challenges posed by migrant crisis and refugee crisis in the past. However the number of people that are crossing borders each day, just to give you a sense, as of early this year the U.N. thinks that roughly five thousand people Venezuelans were leaving their country each day. That is a huge number of people for local officials to deal, with particularly when they come with such acute needs.

    So while initially I think the general response was one of generosity, was one of people rallying together, you know, making the best of a bad situation. But as the numbers grew and the numbers grew, particularly in border communities, we're starting to see a backlash. In the northern province of Roraima, which is a relatively poor province in Brazil, the governor earlier this month took the pretty extraordinary decision of suing the federal government demanding that they shut down the border temporarily until local officials can get a handle on the problem. This is not the kind of response we're used to seeing in places like Brazil. But it speaks to just how vexing this crisis has become for them.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The numbers are certainly staggering. Have you seen anything like this in the region before?

  • ERNESTO LONDOÑO:

    I think it's hard to find parallels that looked anything like this – it burst so fast and so sudden. People were so desperate. In a country where people are literally starving to death, it's pretty unique.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Is anyone in the international community is stepping up to help in any humanitarian aid being sent to Venezuela?

  • ERNESTO LONDOÑO:

    The Venezuelan government has steadfastly refused numerous offers of international aid, of humanitarian aid. Many countries have stepped up and said we would love to help you with the root causes of this, we would love to bring in food, to bring in medicine. However, if the Venezuelan government were to take them up on that offer, it would be acknowledging that there was a crisis, and that would come at pretty steep political price to President Nicolas Maduro. So so far the answer is no.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    All right. Ernesto Londoño of a New York Times, thank you so much for being with us.

  • ERNESTO LONDOÑO:

    My pleasure.

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