Venezuelan Refugees in Colombia: the opposing forces of integration and stigmatization

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

On 8 February 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that he would provide temporary leave to Venezuelans fleeing the economic and humanitarian crisis they face in their home country if they register with the Colombian authorities. In this far-reaching move, the President extends an offer to over 1.7 million Venezuelans who arrived in Colombia in recent years to regularize their stay. Whilst the proposal is welcomed by international and national experts in the field, it is not without its challenges.

Venezuela, once one of the richest countries of South America, has been in crisis since 2014, a year after President Nicolás Maduro came into power. Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez, who had been in charge of a socialist-inspired government for over 20 years until he passed away in 2013. Under Maduro’s leadership, the Venezuelan economy collapsed, leading to a crisis which has been called “the worst in decades outside of war.” As basic necessities such as food, gasoline and medicine have become unaffordable or disappeared completely, the President has become increasingly repressive, plunging the country into a deep political crisis. These compounded conditions led to an exodus of migrants and refugees, with at least 5.4 million people estimated to have fled Venezuela in the past seven years. The mass migration flow out of Venezuela is considered one of the largest migration crises in the world.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Venezuelans fleeing home cross South American countries through different routes. Many flee without knowing their final destination, with the poorest often traveling on foot. More or less a third of those fleeing have found refuge in neighbouring Colombia. Another 2 million are spread across Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, totalling to about 4 million Venezuelan refugees in South America alone. In Colombia, more than half of the Venezuelan population, currently estimated at 1.7 million people, do not have legal status.

Under the new Colombian policy, all Venezuelans who entered the country before 31 January 2020 will be able to register with the authorities and get the right to stay in Colombia for ten years. This includes those without legal status. Venezuelans who enter regularly through a border crossing over the next two years will also be eligible under the scheme. Those who enter “irregularly,” meaning not through an official migration point, will have to return to Venezuela and re-enter to be able to apply for the 10-year temporary protection.

For Venezuelans, the announcement is great cause for celebration. The new policy means they will be able to work, study and importantly, access healthcare, including potential COVID-19 vaccines in Colombia. The decision will help integrate Venezuelans over the longer-term, as well as protect them from exploitation and other dangers to which illegal migrants often fall prey.

Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), hailed the decision as “historic” and “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region in decades. Mr. Grandi joined President Duque during his announcement, where they declared that “migration crises are by definition humanitarian crises.”

Domestic responses to the announcement are more equivocal. Initially, Colombia offered a welcome safe harbour to their fleeing neighbours, but as the flow of migrants continued to swell since 2014, attitudes have cooled. In a xenophobic backlash against Venezuelan migrants, some people blamed the newcomers for domestic problems such as rising criminality and unemployment. Whilst it is true that Venezuelans are a source of competition with local working-class citizens in some places, and that social services have been strained in certain countries, it has been proven that Venezuelans are more often the victims than the perpetrators of crime. This applies especially to those working in precarious circumstances or living on the streets. The pandemic turned out to be the last straw in what many see as an untenable situation, as many blamed Venezuelans for the spread of COVID-19 in Colombia.

Aid workers have warned that although President Duque’s decision is a welcome one, it may further increase these tensions between Venezuelans and Colombians. Additionally, they caution that the work does not stop with temporary status. Hugh Aprile, Colombia’s Mercy Corps director, said that “temporary protected status certainly creates an important and laudable pathway to work legally and access education and healthcare, but on its own it does not create more jobs, seats in classrooms or financial resources.”

There are many challenges ahead, and the implementation of such a large-scale initiative requires significant investments not only in time, logistics and resources, but also in initiatives to appease rising tensions and facilitate integration. The UNHCR has already promised to assist the Colombian government in the rollout of the scheme, stating that Colombia sets an example for other countries. Hopefully, the rest of the continent and ultimately, the rest of the world, follow suit in their approach to migrants fleeing arduous circumstances in their home countries.

Charlotte Rubin is a Queen Mary law graduate. She writes about immigration and human rights issues for Seraphus, the Justice Gap, Free Movement and other outlets.