Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Venezuelan officials have brushed off concerns they've got a migration crisis on their hands, saying the true numbers are being manipulated for political purposes.
Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez responded to recent claims by the United Nations, which called the exodus from the country a "crisis moment."
"There has been an intent to convert a normal migratory flow into a humanitarian crisis in order to justify an international intervention in Venezuela," Rodriguez said Monday. "We will not allow it."
Estimates on how many people are fleeing Venezuela vary by source. The United Nations estimates 1.6 million people have left in three years, and more than 2.3 million Venezuelans are living abroad. Other countries like Peru, Colombia and Ecuador say they are feeling the strain, as the migrants overwhelm social programs.
"The situation is dramatic," said Ronal Rodriguez, a professor and researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory, a think-tank at Colombia's University of Rosario. "These are cases of hypothermia, people who come from the coast and are exposed to temperatures they are not used to, these are not planned trips. Some people receive help but others are harassed. Many die on the road, and family members are forced to leave them behind to continue the journey. The internal changes taking place in the country are making things worse."
President Nicolas Maduro said the migration numbers are much lower, about 600,000 in the last two years, citing certified population numbers. He blamed U.S. financial sanctions and protests for prompting some Venezuelans to "try their luck" elsewhere.
Backing up that claim, Venezuela said last month 89 former citizens returned to the country from Peru.
More than a dozen Latin American countries met Monday to discuss the crisis.
Andres Teran, Ecuador's foreign minister, raised concerns that migrants could be forced into sex trafficking or other forms of exploitation if they can't find work in their new country.
Peru has declared a border emergency as the influx of refugees sparks health and sanitation concerns.
Venezuela has been plagued with food and medicine shortages, spotty electricity and clean water and unreliable public transportation.