Colombia Grants Residency To 440,000 Venezuelan Refugees

The outgoing Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has granted two-year temporary residency permits to 440,000 Venezuelan refugees. The emergency residency scheme will allow refugees to work, study and receive medical care. Colombia is the main destination for Venezuelans fleeing political and economic instability at home. Over 1.5 million Venezuelans have been displaced to date, with around 800,000 crossing the land border to Colombia.

The ever-increasing numbers of Venezuelans crossing the border convinced the Colombian President to approve the scheme before the end of his term. El Tiempo news agency reports that Venezuelan citizens who participated in a census organised by the Colombian authorities (Administrative Registry of Venezuelan Migrants) will be eligible for a residence permit. President Santos made it clear who he held responsible for the refugee crisis; “I reiterate my condemnation of the Venezuelan regime. A regime that does not listen and that remains in a state of total denial. I insist on allowing a humanitarian channel to relive the suffering of its people.”

The Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s prohibition of most foreign humanitarian aid to his country has aggravated the humanitarian crisis, reports the UN. One Venezuelan migrant commented to Reuters News that: “It is ‘migrate and give it a try’ or die of hunger there. Those are the only two options”. An assessment carried out by the International Rescue Committee in March 2018 confirms such testimony, with the main drivers forcing Venezuelans flee to Colombia reported to be “to find a job” (89 per cent of interviewees), “food security” (80%) and “shelter” (58%).

Santo’s recognition of the plight of Venezuelan refugees is particularly positive given that travel restrictions on Venezuelans are tightening elsewhere. The main destination for Venezuelan migrants has historically been the United States; however, the US Supreme Court recently upheld President Trump’s executive travel ban order that includes Venezuela (the main target of the ban is predominantly Muslim countries). Furthermore, Venezuela has been suspended from the MERCOSUR trading bloc, an economic community that allows the automatic granting of residence permits to citizens from member states of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. As such, Venezuelans fleeing to MERCOSUR countries must now either apply for work visas or go through a drawn-out process of being recognised as a refugee.

Acquiring formal legal status is vital for economic migrants and refugees if they are to provide for themselves in a new country. Many who flee Maduro’s government leave with few possessions and little money, and often lack any documentation. Without proper immigration status, they become part of the informal sector in the receiving country. Informality is closely linked with exploitation, abuse, discrimination, xenophobia and other risks amplified by the presence of gangs along the porous Venezuelan-Colombian border.

Ever since Nicholas Maduro took over the reins of the Bolivarian revolution in 2013, the situation in Venezuela has become increasingly unstable. According to UNHCR, the numbers of global Venezuelan asylum applications went from 4,040 in 2014, to 94,284 in 2017. But Colombia’s Director for Migration commented that “The Simon Bolivar Bridge [which joins the two nations] has become the ‘bridge of hope’ for thousands of Venezuelans”. According to the Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, every day 70,000 Venezuelans cross this bridge. The majority seek temporary work, while 5% seek to migrate permanently. The strain on Colombia’s immigration system to process migrants has been growing in step with the Venezuelan crisis. The country has been asking for support from the international community for months. And the International Organization for Migration, the EU and the United Nations are now playing important roles in financing and assisting the refugee process.

Overall, Santos decision should be applauded, as it will not only cut the red tape, but also help the integration of Venezuelans into the Colombian society. It is an example that other neighbouring countries could follow, particularly Brazil. And while other nations are closing their borders and restricting movement, the amnesty granted by Santos shows an understanding of the humanitarian impact of the dislocation of people. It also demonstrates that securitisation is not the only response.