Colombia’s Exemplary Response To Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

Over the past few years, the border between Venezuela and Colombia has seen one of the largest migratory flows of the decade that experiences many economic, political, social, and cultural crises from both sides. As a consequence of the mismanagement of the 2014 oil crisis in Venezuela that leads to hyperinflation, the predominant flow of migrants from Venezuela to Colombia has been estimated by Premiere Urgence Internationale at 1.8 Million in 2020. The inability of the Venezuelan government to completely pay their foreign debts, the collapse of their oil industry as well as the detrimental exchange and price control policies have not only lead to a contraction of more than 30% of the nation’s economy but also disastrous social and political issues within the state.

Politically, the International Crisis Group, in 2018, reported the Venezuelan National Assembly, controlled by the Government’s opposition, being stripped of its power and replaced by a Constituent Assembly that holds authority over all institutions. Socially, the economic crisis has deeply affected accessibility to food and medicine. Indeed, malnutrition has to lead to almost 300.000 children on the edge of death in 2018 due to food scarcity. Moreover, the shortage of food and medicine has caused widespread diseases such as measles or diphtheria.

Venezuelan were thus forced to leave their home country to maintain a decent standard of living, however, this migration flow towards Colombia has put them in a vulnerable and risky position, especially for children and women. In the border territory, Venezuelan immigrant women are exposed to prostitution, human trafficking networks, and other illegal groups. Furthermore, xenophobia in Colombia directed at Venezuelans has experienced an outburst that encourages segregation, hate speech, and rejection that resulted at times to violence. Despite the sanitary and travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 health crisis, the worsening of living conditions in Venezuela has obligated citizens to embark on a perilous road by foot in search of a better living situation.

Dubbed as one of the worst, outside of wars, as well as the most underfunded humanitarian crisis of the decade in the world, the Venezuelan migration crisis has been affected by institutional fragility, lack of effective policies, and territorial violence. To help the control of the migration flow coming from Venezuela, the Colombia government has implemented temporary permits (“Permiso de Ingreso y Permanencia” and “Permiso Temporal de Permanencia”) and visas based on a valid passport. In 2018, Administrative Record for Venezuelan Migrants (RAMV) has ensured security for undocumented migrants by granting them insurances such as the issuance of the Border Migratory Card (TMF) and the Special Permanence Permit (PEP).

Despite the challenges emerging from the pandemic and economic issues, international aid was able to partially ensure the safety of the people. Indeed, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles reports in 2020 a €2.5 billion was pledged by international donors with the EU spending around €68 million in humanitarian assistance. The capacity of national responses to the Venezuelan migrant crisis however has been limited because of insufficient monetary funds and ongoing national tensions, more so during the pandemic. This migrant flow indeed creates new tensions in Colombia, adding on drug-trafficking and paramilitary groups tensions. For example, high unemployment rates in Colombia fuel a sense of xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants.

On February 8th, 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque has declared the proposal of a new approach to this migrant crisis: granting legal status to every Venezuelan immigrant that has entered the country without permission before January 31, 2021. President Duque states that “Venezuelan migrants who fled an economic collapse at home can legally stay in Colombia for 10 years if they register with the authorities.” The head of the U.N. Refugee Agency, Filippo Grandi, applauded the decision taken by the president describing it as “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region in decades. The arguments supporting the implementation of such measure are bases on it being a solution to the lack of documentation that strain the proposal of correct social policy to protect these immigrants.

Furthermore, this measure would guarantee a safer and more organized border crossing that would reduce illegal and life-threatening cross-points. Whilst the response proposed by Duque seems to be widely praised, the implementation of such policy would be accompanied by both financial and organizational issues. Indeed, international aid funding would remain insufficient in comparison to other global migrant crises. The Brookings Institute reported in 2019 that during its first four years the Venezuelan migrant crisis received an estimate of $580 million as financial support while $7.8 billion was attributed to the Syrian refugee crisis during that same time. Moreover, Duque’s solution has yet to address the xenophobic and gender-based discrimination of Venezuelan immigrants. The allocation of legal status to migrants risks a xenophobic outburst from Colombians touched by unemployment and does not respond to the need for more targeted social policies.

The Venezuelan migrant crisis faces a unique situation as the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has not only put migrants at increasingly higher risk in terms of health and living conditions but has also worsened the social tensions between Venezuelans and Colombians. Granting a ten-year legal status to Venezuelan migrants coming to Colombia is a rightful act of humanity that improves integration, safer border crossing, and management of this group’s needs. However, Colombia cannot act and resolve the crisis alone.

Faced with significant financial issues, Colombia needs a stronger commitment from the international community to offer protection and decent living conditions to Venezuelan migrants whilst implementing the legal status procedure. President Duque reports that for migrants “education costs $160 million per year; emergency health care costs nearly $40 million per year, and water and sanitation services cost $260 million.” which shows the extent to the current lack of funding for supporting the Venezuelan migrant population. First and foremost, given the difficult conditions that Venezuelan migrants reside in with minimal accessibility to food, paid positions, or shelter, an international organisation such as UNHCR should not only advocate for change in conditions and praise Duque’s initiatives but allocate funding and employ volunteering to expand the transit camps in Maicao.

By financially supporting the logistics of welcoming migrants into a country that has committed itself to the relief of this humanitarian crisis, the international organisation actually shows their encouragement towards taking similar initiatives and makes their solidarity which such countries clear. This action should also be accompanied by the production of more integration and assistance programs, specifically for women and children. Implementing employment programs and financing training programs for migrants in Colombia may increase their employment rate as well as prevent work abuse and violation of rights.

Furthermore, by targeting programs, establishing and developing sanctuaries for women and children specifically, these prevent risks such as violence, human trafficking, forced recruitment, and sexual exploitation. Each camp should therefore be equipped with the proper medical supplies to face not only the global health crisis but also the lack of sanitary towels. Training should also be provided to public and private officers that are involved in the integration of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia to reinforce the protection of human rights.

Finally, a shift in the narrative of the Venezuelan migrant crisis seen from an exodus of immigrants looking for employment towards a palpable humanitarian crisis dealing with refugees seeking to escape extreme poverty would provide a better understanding of the context and hopefully would decrease xenophobic discourses. Furthermore, this rebuilt narrative supported by the regional media would drive neighbouring countries to reevaluate their migration policies and rather reinforce policies dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

To exemplify the importance of the narrative, due to Ecuador’s former President Rafael Correa’s refusal to recognise the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, Venezuelan migrants cannot in Ecuador be considered as refugees, therefore, stripping them of needed special protection. Opening regional discussions that would lead to drafting an agreement between Venezuela’s neighbouring countries regarding better management of this crisis would alleviate the financial and social weight that Colombia currently carries. Nevertheless, the world should consider Colombian actions towards this humanitarian crisis as an example of “building the foundations for peaceful and equitable coexistence” as Plan International states.

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