MADRID (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The third time Stefania Pace was attacked, she knew it was time to leave Venezuela.
In the first assault, three men with a gun robbed her outside her Caracas home, the second she was mugged at 10 a.m. In the latest, in January, a man crashed into her car and pulled a gun on her when she demanded he take responsibility, she said.
“I called my mum, after I calmed down, and I told her, ‘Now is my time to go, I can’t stand it’,” the 28-year-old said.
Political turmoil and a crippling economic crisis have left millions of Venezuelans struggling to eat and short of medicines. About 100 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured in months of anti-government unrest.
Pace flew to Spain’s capital Madrid in May, leaving her home country with regret.
“That doesn’t mean that I don’t like Europe. But it’s not your culture. You feel like you don’t belong,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Madrid.
A psychologist at home, Pace is one of a rising number of Venezuelans forced into new lives abroad.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that globally 52,000 Venezuelans had applied for asylum this year, a rise from 27,000 in the whole of 2016. It said 4,300 Venezuelans had sought asylum in Spain so far in 2017, the fourth most popular destination.
Venezuelans had the most asylum applications in Spain last year, ahead of Syrians and Ukrainians, according the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR).
The figures exclude the many Venezuelans who can live legally elsewhere, due to having second passports or ancestry from another country.
Many arrive in Spain with little money and few contacts. Often they go to Alberto Casillas, a Spaniard who lived with his Venezuelan wife in her country for more than two decades.
From his restaurant in Las Rozas, 20 km (12 miles) outside Madrid, he doles out food, medicines, and other supplies and provides legal advice to the new arrivals.
Casillas flicks through scores of messages on his phone on WhatsApp and social networks from Venezuelans, from those who have already arrived and those contemplating fleeing to Spain.
He says around double the number of Venezuelans are arriving each month compared to last year, about 400 or 500. But the most dramatic change has been who is coming, he said.
“Before people with degrees came: engineers, lawyers, doctors. Now everyone is coming. From the low classes, who’ve sold the little they have,” Casillas said.
“Families are coming here with 300 euros, without money, without their correct papers.”
The aid agencies CEAR, Caritas and the Red Cross also provide help.
Many older immigrants find it hard to find any sort of job. The Association of Venezuelan Pensioners and Retirees in the Community of Madrid represents 4,000 people who’ve stopped receiving their pensions from the Venezuelan government without an explanation.
The association’s president, Pedro Ontiveros, says he’s been without his monthly pension since December 2015.
The 72-year-old former university professor survives with the help of his sons, who live in Spain and Britain. He says other Venezuelan pensioners are working in Spaniards’ homes for a little money or food.
“But every day it is getting worse. People have problems because of their age. They are anxious about how they will eat,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Immigrants blame their plight on Venezuela’s rulers, labeling them as dictators and thieves.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Venezuela in recent months, calling for an end to President Nicolas Maduro’s presidency, amid food shortages, soaring inflation and rising crime.
Maduro says protests against him are part of a violent coup attempt, backed by the United States.
Venezuelans can enter Spain for three months without a visa, which, with a common language and cultural ties, entices asylum seekers. They mostly head for Madrid and Barcelona, said Maria Vega, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Madrid.
Although Spain has voiced concern over Venezuela’s human rights situation, Madrid granted one Venezuelan asylum from 2013 to 2016 from 5,051 requests, according to Ministry of Interior figures.
Eurostat data up to March showed that 21,870 people in total were waiting for their asylum applications to be processed in Spain, of whom 7,005 were Venezuelans.
The Spanish Ministry of Interior didn’t respond to requests for comment.
For Stefania Pace, the issue of asylum is not a concern. Through her Italian father, she has an EU passport. Her friend helped her get a telemarketing job and another has offered her a room.
She hopes to transfer her qualifications to try to get a better job. But she’s under no illusions.
“If ... you don’t mind doing a job in a restaurant or in a shop or something like that you can live here. But if you came with the idea that you’re going to be the same as in Venezuela you are not going to live well, because that’s hard,” Pace said.
Eventually, “I would like to go back,” she said. “I would love it.”
Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org