QUITO – Ecuador opened a “humanitarian corridor” and lifted its entry restrictions on the masses of Venezuelans escaping a free-falling economy and streaming toward Peru on Friday, hours before Lima tightened its border controls.
Interior Minister Mauro Toscanini said there were 35 busloads of migrants on the move along the route authorities had opened to Peru.
“We are going to continue as long as we can,” said the minister, whose country is being crossed by tens of thousands of Venezuelans seeking to join relatives and take up work opportunities in Peru, Chile and beyond.
Peru is one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, expected to grow 4.7 percent next year.
Venezuelans trying to cross the Peruvian border after a midnight deadline were to be required to produce a passport. Until then, an identity card would suffice.
However, they will no longer need to produce a passport to enter Ecuador from Colombia.
Ecuador — where close to half a million people have fled this year alone — moved to ease the migrant crisis by lifting its weeklong requirement for Venezuelans to produce a passport, which prompted Peru to announce its own identical measure.
Peru’s new passport rules threaten to leave tens of thousands of Venezuelans stranded in Ecuador and Colombia, which are already inundated with migrants from the crisis-racked country.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will set up a special U.N. team to ensure a coordinated regional response to the crisis, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday.
Venezuelans are rushing out of the country amid the deepening economic crisis as regional governments struggle to cope with one of the biggest exoduses in Latin American history.
Of the 2.3 million Venezuelans living abroad, more than 1.6 million have fled since 2015, when the oil-rich nation was plunged into a serious economic and political crisis, with acute shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities, and failing public services.
The pace of departures has accelerated in recent days, sparking a warning from the United Nations.
“It remains critical that any new measures continue to allow those in need of international protection to access safety and seek asylum,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement on Thursday.
The U.N. said up to 4,000 people were arriving daily in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil, where migrants have been violently turned back by locals concerned by increasing crime.
Ecuador will host a 13-nation regional summit next month to discuss the crisis.
Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela have been invited to the Sept. 17-18 meeting in Quito, officials said.
In Tumbes, on the Peruvian side of the border with Ecuador, lines of people waited to have their papers checked, sweating in the tropical heat.
Only around half of the Venezuelans fleeing their homes and the economic chaos there are carrying passports, according to Colombia’s migration director, Christian Kruger. The other half have identity cards.
Like Colombia, Peru has been struggling to cope. Earlier this month, a record 5,100 people entered the country in a single day.
Peru’s migration superintendent, Eduardo Sevilla, said on Thursday that “there are already 400,000” Venezuelans in the country, and if they continue arriving at the same rate, there will be “half a million by the beginning of November.”
Many lining up at the border in Peru left Venezuela on foot weeks ago. They have already traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), but those who get through face another 1,200-kilometer journey to the Peruvian capital, Lima.
Churches have been handing out food to the weary and hungry migrants as they wait.
Peru has called for calm, saying the number of Venezuelans affected by the new policy will be relatively minor.
“No one’s talking about the closing of borders,” said Interior Minister Mauro Medina.
He said Peru is improving its “migration control for reasons of order and security,” adding that “80 percent of Venezuelans who come into the country do so with a passport.”
In Colombia, Kruger criticized the measures announced by Bogota’s two southern neighbors, admitting he was “worried about the consequences.”
“Asking for a passport isn’t going to stop migration, because they’re leaving their country not out of choice but out of necessity,” he said.
Venezuela is in a fourth straight year of recession, with double-digit declines in its gross domestic product.
The inflation rate is expected to reach a mind-boggling 1 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Industry is operating at only 30 percent, hit hard by the crash in oil prices since 2014 in a country that earns 96 percent of its revenue from crude.
In efforts to boost the economy, President Nicolas Maduro and his government have implemented measures including a re-denomination of the bolivar, a loosening of foreign capital rules and a massive increase in the minimum wage.
But critics and analysts say those moves will likely be counterproductive.