Peru deports first large group of Venezuelan migrants

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru deported more than 40 Venezuelan migrants for concealing they had criminal records or for residing illegally in the country, the interior minister said on Monday, in the first large expulsion since hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fled to Peru to escape their country’s economic crisis.

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The migrants were detained in different districts of the capital, Lima, in a police operation early on Monday, and were put on a military plane headed to Venezuela hours later.

Interior Minister Carlos Moran said most of the Venezuelans expelled had provided false sworn declarations in their residency applications that they had no criminal record, a violation of Peru’s migration law punishable with deportation.

Others were deported for residing illegally in the Andean country, Moran added, without providing details.

Peru, which has a population of 32 million, has the second-biggest population of Venezuelan migrants after Colombia. Most of the 700,000 Venezuelans in Peru came in the past year.

“As a country, we have fraternally welcomed thousands of Venezuelans who have come to seek a better future,” Moran told reporters. “But as a government, we must protect our citizens first, and these people who have entered lying, falsifying information, had criminal records, and that’s a threat.”

The deportation on Monday followed reports in local media in recent months about Venezuelan nationals involved in criminal rackets, including an alleged kidnapping-for-ransom gang that police said they disbanded last week.

Some 3 million Venezuelans have left their homeland since 2015, seeking to escape an economic crisis that has deprived many of basic foods and medicine, according to a U.N. estimate. A further 2 million are expected to emigrate this year.

Most Venezuelan migrants have ended up in other South American countries, straining public services in developing nations unaccustomed to absorbing large migratory waves and fuelling a backlash in some places.

Peru created temporary residency permits for Venezuelans in early 2017, allowing them to work and receive health and education services. But last year, the government of President Martin Vizcarra stopped receiving new applicants in the program, which has granted permits to more than 330,000 Venezuelans and is processing requests for 160,000 others.

Sixty-seven percent of Peruvians now view Venezuelan immigration as negative, compared with 43 percent in February 2018, according to an Ipsos poll published in daily El Comercio on Monday. Crime was listed as the top concern, followed by fears about jobs.

Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney