GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency says the majority of Venezuelans fleeing worsening conditions in their country are in need of international protection and must not be forcibly returned home.
Citizens are leaving Venezuela as political, economic, human rights and humanitarian conditions deteriorate. The U.N. refugee agency reports some 3.7 million people have fled the country. Most have gone to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Caribbean countries.
The agency says by the end of last year, some 460,000 Venezuelans had formally sought asylum.
But given the dire conditions back home, UNHCR spokeswoman Liz Throssell said it is clear the majority of the millions of those who have left need international refugee protection.
"This is because of the threats to their lives, security or freedom resulting from circumstances that are seriously disturbing public order in Venezuela," she said. "UNHCR also calls on states to ensure that Venezuelans, regardless of their legal status, are not deported or otherwise forcibly returned to Venezuela."
Throssell said so far Venezuelans are not being deported, but warned that might change as more people flee and the refugee load becomes more burdensome.
She said there was a period not long ago when official border crossings into Latin American countries were closed. She notes Brazil's border with Venezuela was reopened only last week.
"What we have seen is people crossing over regular crossing points, but also, importantly, some people are opting to take irregular routes that are dangerous, putting themselves at risk," she told VOA. "One of the reasons why we are saying this now is that given the progressive deterioration of the circumstances in Venezuela, we are seeing that Venezuelans who are increasingly vulnerable are leaving the country."
Throssell said countries hosting the ever-growing number of Venezuelans need international support. She said they are under incredible strain and do not have the financial means to care for the asylum-seekers.
She is appealing to donors to be more generous in their contributions, noting that the U.N.'s $146 million appeal for Venezuela is only 28 percent funded.