Colombia is home to most of the migrants and refugees from Venezuela. Credit: Tomer Urwicz. Apr 16 (IPS) – Colombia will grant legal status to all Venezuelan migrants who have fled there since 2016 in order to escape their country’s economic collapse and political crisis.
The bold new policy, which gives nearly 1 million undocumented migrants the right to legal employment, health care, education and Colombian banking services for 10 years, is driven by both empathy and pragmatism, says Colombian President Ivan Duque.
“They’ll likely stay for more than a decade,” Duque told NPR on March 3, 2021. “So it is better to give them the opportunity to contribute to the Colombian economy too.”
Venezuelan arrivals in Colombia are not limited to refugee camps, but are scattered across the country. It was a challenge to document and record so many migrants – who often arrive on foot with just a handful of personal items and without valid ID. Even rich countries like the USA are struggling with mass migration.
In a way, Colombia – itself no stranger to political unrest and displacement – is uniquely prepared for this migration crisis.
History of the conflict
Colombia has received the brunt of the exodus from neighboring Venezuela since 2015.
When many other South American countries closed their borders with Venezuela, Colombia offered a series of biennial permits that gave about 700,000 Venezuelans the right to work and access to health care between 2017 and 2020.
Coupled with the new legalization plan for 1 million additional migrants, almost all of the 1.7 million or so Venezuelans who have come to Colombia since 2015 will have legal status. Newcomers who will be processed legally over the next two years are also insured.
Colombia is not rich. But Colombians understand better than many others what it means to be driven away from home.
Over 8 million of the 50 million people in Colombia have been displaced by ongoing civil wars since the 1990s. At least 1 million people moved to neighboring Venezuela in search of security and opportunity. A government peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group in 2016 suppressed violence in Colombia, but did not end it.
Because of this story, international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program have been working in Colombia for decades. Today the United States Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration lead a group of 73 international organizations and agencies to align their work with Colombia’s national humanitarian efforts. Working in 14 states across Colombia, the group provides support ranging from distributing COVID-19 hygiene kits to enrolling migrant children in school.
Humanitarian networks adapt
The Colombian government also has around 50 agencies dedicated to assisting Colombians displaced by armed conflict. Now many are adapting this experience to help Venezuelan migrants.
Since 2019, we have interviewed over a dozen government officials, lawyers and civil society representatives in two Colombian “departments” or states that have hosted high numbers of Venezuelan migrants: Atlántico and Norte de Santander. This work was part of a larger study of how countries deal with mass migration.
At the religious charity Secretariado de Pastoral Social-Cáritas, part of the Catholic Archdiocese of the city of Barranquilla in Atlántico, the long-time director said the situation of migrants is very similar to what it was decades ago when the civil war in Colombia peaked in the Atlántico region reached out with people wandering around who don’t know anyone and aren’t sure what to do or where to go. Then as now, they slept in the parks and on the streets.
“We lived it back in the 1990s,” said the director of Pastoral Social.
Back then, the group helped displaced Colombians by struggling to find food and shelter. Now many of his customers are Venezuelans.
The nonprofit Opción Legal – an umbrella organization that manages refugee programs for the United States – has a similar history of origin.
Starting 21 years ago, employees worked in some of Colombia’s most difficult conflict regions, training the non-profit organizations that, among other things, help displaced people with accounting and legal procedures.
Now Opción Legal offers Venezuelan migrants free legal advice on Colombian health care and education. Through a nationwide network of 22 Colombian universities that has been developed over many years, students and professors are trained to extend the reach of their legal aid programs to Venezuelan migrants.
In 2019, according to the United Nations, nearly 80 million people worldwide – mainly Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans and South Sudanese – were displaced from their homes due to crime, climate change, chronic poverty, war, political instability and disasters. Time up. Many will spend years or decades waiting for a permanent solution, whether it be settling locally, returning home, or finding a new country to live a life of.
Colombia’s new legalization plan reflects the perception that the collapse of Venezuela is a long-term challenge and that integrating migrants is a better solution economically and socially than trying to keep them out or shut them out.
Colombia is internationally welcomed for its humanitarianism. However, equipping hospitals and schools to meet the needs of this rapidly growing and often very needy population requires a lot of money. And most of it has to come from the international community because Colombia doesn’t have the money to go it alone. However, the Venezuelan migrant crisis is a chronically underfunded area of humanitarian work.
The legalization plan also risks fueling anti-migrant sentiment in Colombia. In border areas in particular, some blame migration for increased violence – although evidence shows that Venezuelan migrants are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
And Colombia still has its own migration problems. Dissident FARC members, other guerrilla groups, drug cartels and riots continue to fight for territory and resources, displacing 70,865 more Colombians in the last year alone.
The Colombian government is counting on the United States and international organizations to achieve their ambitious goal of accepting 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
If it works, that money would also improve government services for all Colombians.
Lia Castillo, Liss Romero and Lydia Sa conducted research, documentation and analysis for this story.
Erika Frydenlund, Research Associate, Old Dominion University;; Jose J. Padilla, Research Associate Professor, Old Dominion Universityand Katherine Palacio, Assistant Professor and Data Analyst, Universidad del Norte
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