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Vatican Launches Aid Program for Rising Tide of Fleeing Venezuelans

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Sabina Castelfranco

ROME — Since last year, Pope Francis has gradually and carefully been stepping up his criticism of the suffering that Venezuela’s people have been enduring under the government of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

This week, the Vatican announced an aggressive plan to aid the huge number of Venezuelans fleeing deteriorating conditions in the South American country. Dubbed “Bridges of Solidarity,” the project was launched by the Holy See in partnership with South American bishops.

The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has produced a tremendous flow of emigration. Thousands of Venezuelans have fled the instability, soaring crime, shortages, and hyperinflation under Maduro's government. They have sought refuge largely in neighboring South American nations.

To assist the displaced, the bishops’ conferences of eight countries – Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina – have teamed up with the Vatican’s Office to Promote Integral Human Development.

The “Bridges of Solidarity” project, which was presented on Monday, will initially run for 24 months and is in line with Pope Francis’ four-step plan to offer assistance to migrants and refugees: to welcome, protect, promote and integrate the displaced Venezuelans.

Services offered through the project include the building of centers and shelters for migrants, assistance finding housing and jobs, the facilitation of access to education and health care, advocacy and legal assistance, professional training of pastoral workers and awareness campaigns aimed at sensitizing local communities to the needs of migrants and the risks they face.

For the last several months, Pope Francis has expressed his rising concern for the people of Venezuela in the face of growing disturbances.

Addressing pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, he said earlier this year “I assure my prayer for this beloved nation, and express my closeness to the families that have lost their children in the riots.” He has appealed for an end to violence.

The Vatican’s office for migrants and refugees will be making available nearly half-a-million dollars a year, which also includes private donations as well as funding from local dioceses. The aid is to be distributed among the eight nations involved in the project.

Venezuela, with its enormous oil resources, was until recent decades Latin America’s richest economy.

It is now seeing much of its population leave.

The International Organization for Migration said that between 2015 and 2017 the number of Venezuelan immigrants in Latin America increased by more than 900 percent, from 89,000 to 900,000 people.