LIMA, Peru -- The region needs to brace itself for the arrival of even more Venezuelan migrants, as there are few signs that the exodus will end anytime soon, the head of the United Nations refugee agency said.
Speaking to reporters in Lima Thursday, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said the international community needs to help countries like Colombia and Peru that are absorbing the brunt of the new arrivals.
"Clearly, I think governments in the region and we, the humanitarian community, must step up our preparation for more (migrants); this is not going to stop anytime soon," he said of the Venezuelan crisis. "Unfortunately it's not going to stop."
More than 2 million Venezuelans are thought to have left the country in recent years -- one of the largest mass migrations in the Western Hemisphere. Grandi said the only comparable migrant flows were from war-torn Central American nations in the 1980s.
"This is for sure the largest movement of people out of a country that we have seen in a long time -- as far as we can remember," he said. "But it's also unusual in that there is no war in Venezuela, so this is not the same type of crisis that we saw 30 years ago."
"We are all adapting to respond to something that is fairly new and fairly complex, but very serious," he added.
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Venezuela's grinding economic and political crises have rattled the region. Once one of the hemisphere's wealthiest nations, Venezuela's oil-based economy has collapsed amid corruption, mismanagement and international sanctions. Food and medicine shortages sweep through the nation of 32 million, and the International Monetary Fund expects inflation will hit 10 million percent in 2019.
Grandi said he visited a soup kitchen in Cucuta, Colombia -- on the border with Venezuela -- where he met people who were counting on the free meal to survive.
"There were people that were coming from Venezuela to have one meal, to eat and go back," he said. "This I have not seen in other places. It really struck me."
Venezuela accuses its neighbors of exaggerating the migratory crisis as part of a larger plot to topple the socialist administration of President Nicolas Maduro. But Grandi said Venezuelan officials have privately acknowledged that their citizens have "needs that need to be met."