Colombia: A Leading Example In Its Treatment of Refugees

The Colombian government has been praised for paving the way in how states should respond to increased flows of refugees and displaced people. Last month, President Ivan Duque of Colombia made a historic decision to grant temporary protective status to almost 1 million Venezuelan refugees within the country. This decision will transform the lives of forcibly displaced Venezuelans in Colombia and should serve as a pertinent reminder to other states of the need to rethink their own policies and approaches to refugees and asylum seekers.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has described the decision as an “extraordinary example of humanity, commitment towards human rights and pragmatism.” He further stated that in his five years serving as High Commissioner there had not been “..another event of this magnitude or a precedent as critical as providing temporary protection for Venezuelans.”

According to the United Nations, more than 5 million Venezuelans have been forcibly displaced from their homes since 2015 due to political and economic instability. Of this number, the largest proportion has ended up in neighbouring Colombia. This huge and rapid exodus of Venezuelans has resulted in Colombia now having the status of hosting the second greatest number of refugees worldwide – sitting only behind Turkey.

Venezuelans who receive the temporary protective status will be able to work, access healthcare and become integrated into the local community. The protective status will apply for ten years and will allow those displaced to “normalise” into Colombian society, according to President Duque.

As summarised by Filippo Grandi in his statement, it will “allow Venezuelans to contribute actively to the national economy and the well-being of the communities that host them.” The impact this will have cannot be overstated, as previously, undocumented Venezuelans faced socio-economic exclusion and an inability to find work. The dire conditions were further exacerbated with the implications of COVID-19.

Colombia’s decision has simultaneously drawn attention to the shortcomings in terms of support from the international community towards the Venezuelan displacement crisis. The Colombian government spends over $1 billion a year on displaced Venezuelans with little international contribution. As a result, efforts are being made to bring the issue to the forefront of the international arena in order to mobilise increased donor capacity.

President Duque told NPR that in the context of the Syrian crisis, over $3,000 per displaced individual has been pledged and disbursed. For South Sudan, the figure is $1,600. Whereas, in regard to the Venezuelan crisis, a mere $316 has been pledged. The forced migration of Venezuelans is therefore highly underfunded when compared with other contemporary instances of mass displacement. However, as highlighted by Sergio Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis, the prospects of this changing are likely to be slim. He stated that the Colombian government is “on the right side of history” but added: “I don’t see a very generous international community.” While this action of the Colombian government is highly positive going forward, greater cooperation amongst the international community will likely be required in order to fully address issues of forced migration.

This approach to displaced people from the Colombian government is a stark contrast to that of other states in the region. While Colombia has opened its door to those seeking safety, other countries, such as Ecuador, Peru and Chile, have attempted to keep it firmly closed. For example, in January, military tanks were sent to the Peru/ Ecuador border to prevent arrivals of displaced Venezuelans.

In this regard, President Duque has expressed hope that the actions of Colombia will encourage other states to take similar approaches. He stated: “We want to set an example and [be] a reference that can be adopted by other countries.”

This landmark decision of the Colombian government sets a prime example in its treatment of refugees – an example which states around the world should strive to follow. It is imperative that state immigration policy adapts and moves forward from its repressive roots in order to become more aligned with the realities of forced displacement around the world.

Lauryn Sinclair