- Associated Press - Friday, June 28, 2019

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) - Venezuelans fleeing their nation’s political and humanitarian crisis in growing numbers should be granted refugee status, a group of specialists with the Washington-based Organization of American States said Friday.

The task force comprised of migration experts warned that as many as 8.2 million Venezuelans could leave by the end of 2020 if no solution is reached.

Venezuelan opposition leader and group coordinator David Smolansky said Venezuelans are being forced to leave as conditions continue to deteriorate and that those arriving in nations around Latin America need refugee protections.

“How desperate does a mom have to be to walk with her child for thousands of kilometers?” he said, referring to migrants who flee on foot .

The findings were presented on the final day of the OAS’ general assembly meeting in the Colombian city of Medellin, where the Venezuela ordeal has been the focus of discussions. It is up to member states whether to adopt any recommendations.

The United Nations estimates there are now 4 million Venezuelans living abroad, about a quarter of whom have fled since November. Venezuelans filed more than one in five of all asylum requests in 2018, higher than any other nationality.

The widely used definition of a refugee is someone who has fled his or her country because of war, persecution or violence. The asylum seeker must typically show that they cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group.

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

Nations including Colombia where large numbers of Venezuelans are arriving signed the Cartagena Declaration but have given relatively few refugee status. Granting Venezuelans refugee status could pull hundreds of thousands with no legal migration record out of the shadows and provide them certain protections. Refugees, for example, cannot be deported back to the country they fled.

The OAS working group said it has documented 101 deaths of Venezuelan migrants who fled by land or sea. In recent months, several rickety boats carrying Venezuelan migrants to nearby Caribbean islands have sunk or gone missing.

OAS member countries adopted a resolution later Friday urging Venezuela’s leaders to hold new elections as soon as possible and agreeing to recognize the diplomats named by opposition leader Juan Guaidó in the meantime.

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