In a historic move that could benefit the lives of more than one million migrants living in Colombia, President Iván Duque has announced that the country will give temporary legal status to the over 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees currently residing in Colombia. Provided they register with the Colombian government, the decision will allow Venezuelan migrants – both legal and illegal – to stay in the country for up to ten years, during which time they will be able to work legally and access a variety of social services.
The February 8th announcement was made alongside Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who called the decision “an extraordinary example of humanity, commitment towards human rights, and pragmatism.” “Colombia’s offer to provide temporary protection to Venezuelans on its territory for a ten-year period is a humanitarian gesture of an unprecedented scale in the region — and in the entire world,” Grandi said.
As many refugees arrive to Colombia undocumented, greater emphasis will now be placed around encouraging them to enter through formal checkpoints. As Duque pointed out, registering these migrants would aid Colombia’s security agencies in identifying people in need, as well as finding those in violation of the law. Furthermore, it would make providing social services much more efficient, particularly the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. “We hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said.
A devastating economic collapse and deep political arrest have pushed many Venezuelans to flee their country. Under President Nicolás Maduro’s rule, Venezuela has struggled with record levels of hyperinflation; severe shortages of necessities such as food, medicine, and gas; and an increasingly repressive and authoritarian government. According to the U.N., this has become the largest refugee crisis in the Americas – almost 5 million Venezuelans have now fled their country, about 1.7 million of which have settled in neighbouring Colombia. 55 per cent do not have legal status. The new measure would make Venezuelan migrants who arrived in Colombia without permission eligible for a ten-year residence permit, while migrants who have already been granted legal status will be permitted to stay without having to reapply for at least a decade.
While many have praised this decision, concerns have been raised surrounding the government’s ability to actually provide for these migrants, both financially and logistically. An array of sociopolitical issues, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, have increased social tensions in Colombia; budgets have been stretched, xenophobia is on the rise, and many Colombians are angry. Additionally, Colombia hasn’t received nearly as much international aid funding as other countries facing global migration crises – in December 2019, Brookings Institution analysts estimated that $580m was spent in response to the Venezuelan displacement crisis during its first four years, while $7.8bn was spent in response to the Syrian refugee crisis during that same period. Furthermore, many Colombians feel they must compete with migrants when it comes to jobs or access to social services. This decision may only heighten such competitive sentiments.
But as President Duque said, “migration crises are by definition humanitarian crises,” and they should be treated as such. A substantial increase in global aid will be absolutely critical in helping Colombia deal with the migration crisis, as will the support of both government and civil society actors.
Being one of few countries to leave its borders open to Venezuelan refugees and asylum seekers, Colombia continues to stand out as a country that welcomes those who have escaped economic and political turmoil. While many countries have decided to tighten border security and entry requirements to prevent refugees from entering, Colombia will be giving these migrants the chance to start rebuilding their lives as recognized human beings. The contrast in responses is deep.
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