The Venezuelan refugee crisis in Colombia is the largest such crisis ever to have taken place in the Americas. As such, it has taken both the government and society by surprise.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis, stemming from the country’s political and socio-economic instability, is an unprecedented catastrophe and is the largest such crisis ever recorded in the Americas. Since it began in 1999, its consequences have swept across South America, catching many of Venezuela´s neighbouring nations unprepared. Worse, it’s added to pre-existing structural issues: poverty, vast inequality and - in Colombia’s case - violent conflict.
Since 2015, around 5.4 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees have left their country; this figure is estimated to rise to seven million by the end of 2021. By January 2021, around 1.742.927 Venezuelans had arrived in Colombia, of which around 759,584 were granted legal status and 983,343 were ominously deemed “irregular”.
The scale of this crisis has added to Colombia’s ongoing struggle to deal with its internally displaced population, the result of decades of armed conflict between the government, left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers or criminal organisations.
The crisis has triggered a range of complex problems blockading the lives of Venezuelans migrating to Colombia. A further complication is the fluctuating response from the Colombian government and its local authorities, as well as a rising wave of xenophobia amongst Colombians directed towards Venezuelan migrants.
Colombia’s “rocky” response to the migrant issue
The state’s response to the crisis is intrinsically connected to two issues: Colombia’s peace negotiations (which ended in the 2016 Havana peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (a.k.a. the People’s Army or FARC) and the government’s contentious relationship with the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The Havana peace negotiations, of which Venezuela and Cuba were key proponents, was soon undermined by polarisation and a legitimacy crisis. This ended in a referendum which rejected the accords.
Subsequently, the Santos government (in power from 2010 to 2018) hardened its stance against the Venezuelan president Maduro. It also tightened its anti-immigration measures, creating a rift along the Colombia-Venezuelan border. This space was already being governed by corrupt officials, armed groups and distrustful locals. These, amongst other threats, converged to make the journey over the border life-threatening for Venezuelans.
Underlying this crisis is a key structural issue: a lack of protection of Venezuelan migrant rights surrounding issues of health, labour, and official documentation. This is due to the lack of solid policy, legislation, and institutional setup to deal with the crisis. Most solutions provided during the first two years of the crisis (201 seemed temporary and improvised. Temporary residence status was limited to two years. The Colombian state failed to perform its internationally agreed responsibilities laid out by treaties such as the Mexican Declaration of 2004 and the Brazil Action Plan of 2014, which were both intended to guarantee the protection of refugees and displaced people in the Americas.
2017: Promises and Failures
In 2017, the current Colombian government developed a strategy for assisting and integrating Venezuelan migrants. This included giving Venezuelans access to both the national health system and humanitarian services (water, shelter, sanitation etc.); strengthening Colombia’s legal institutions in order to enhance the protection of human rights for migrants; and offering Venezuelan children spaces in schools.
Whilst these short-term policies are necessary, they must be combined with long-term strategies to help integrate migrants into the job market. This is particularly challenging as the Colombian labour market is characterised by informal work. Finding a sustainable way out of the crisis will require policies covering education, taxes, pensions, business and labour.
Despite having established this broad and potentially far-reaching approach in 2017, the measures have since been overshadowed by aggressive foreign policy. Colombia has focused on sanctioning the Maduro (Venezuelan) administration, seeking an end to the current socialist regime. So far, this has been a failed strategy, blocking the country’s conflicting efforts to support Venezuelan refugees whilst simultaneously enlarging the counterproductive rift between the two countries’ presidents.
Political commentator Sandra Borda branded Colombian President Ivan Duque´s approach as a “foreign policy failure” due to its attempted diplomatic blockade on Venezuela. This move further isolated Colombia within the regional context. Consequently, Duque´s government has ended up aligning itself with nations outside of South America. The most notable being America, after President Trump´s policy a u-turn; having labelled the Maduro administration as “narco-terrorist”, Trump switched to offering to lift economic sanctions so as to allow political negotiations in the country. The ensuing US-Colombia rapport could reasonably be described as a carrot-on-a-stick relationship.
Covid’s impact: vaccinations and Venezuelans
The intergovernmental rifts, border tensions and a significant fluctuation in Colombia´s foreign policy towards Venezuela have all affected the strength of political will possessed by Colombian leaders vis a vis the migrant crisis. A prime example of this is the government’s recent approach towards migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2020, President Duque stated publicly that the only Venezuelans who would receive vaccinations would be those with double citizenship or legalised status in the country. This neglects around 55% of the 1.7 million Venezuelans living in Colombia. By February 2020, Duque had changed his approach. The President legalised all Venezuelan migrants in the country through a temporary status to last ten years. This means that migrants can now work legally and access Colombia´s health and education services, as well as receive vaccinations against Covid-19.
Such a decision has proved to be unpopular within certain sectors of Colombian society who already have a poor perception of the president´s handling of the pandemic. At the same time, it has been praised by the IMO and the UNHCR agencies in the country. Albeit the historical dimension of this decision, the fluctuation in Duque´s approach denotes a lack of experience in handling migration matters and demonstrates just how influential foreign policy assessments (which have been highly inconsistent due to changing presidencies and the like) are for the level of aid and support offered to Venezuelans.
A harder place: xenophobia and societal responses to Venezuelan migrants
In order to understand the xenophobic sentiments against Venezuelans in Colombia, it is important to highlight a contextual feature: Colombia is an extremely polarised society due to its internal armed conflict. Divisions can be seen between left- and right-wing politics, between rural and urban populations, and between social classes. This polarisation clearly affects attitudes and beliefs around immigration, creating separate and opposing(?) discourses. One labels migrants as victims of a malevolent leftist regime which, though sympathetic, reduces their agency by deeming them vulnerable and in constant need of charity. The opposing discourse deems Venezuelans as criminals, prostitutes and free riders seeking government handouts. This situation has turned Venezuelan migrants into scapegoats for a whole host of issues such as unemployment, a reduction of the quality of life, a perception of higher insecurity and delinquency that exists in many cities.
Such a context explains the harassment and stigmatisation that Venezuelans face when they arrive in Colombia. Within different arrival areas, migrants are met with xenophobic narratives built upon a public opinion that constantly portrays Venezuelans as undesirable and threatening individuals who seek to disrupt societal integrity and private property. The outcome has been the use of violence, harassment against migrants and their dehumanisation expressed in events such as the circulation of threatening propaganda against Venezuelans in many Colombian towns, attacks with Molotov bombs to settlements and places offering shelter to migrants, and in a few extreme cases the murder of migrants.
A recent example of a discriminatory discourse against Venezuelans can be seen in recent remarks made by Claudia López, mayor of Colombia´s capital Bogotá, who publicly stated that the presence of Venezuelan migrants had led to an increase in the city´s insecurity. These comments were made after the death of a police officer during a shootout in the central area. “First, they kill (us), then they rob (us)”, stated Lopez before demanding improved guarantees for Colombians amidst the rising insecurity in Bogotá, promising to raise efforts to fight crime and strengthen judicial processes (the implication being that this was in the face of Venezuelan immigration).
Beyond such blatant episodes of xenophobic sentiment and violence lies a more complex issue: a structural systematic exclusion of migrants from accessing basic goods and services. and cultural violence that is expressed in an anti-immigrant sentiment that is rampant on all forms of digital media. Although these problems tend to affect all Venezuelan migrants, they seem to take their toll on the poorest and those who belong to traditionally excluded groups such as afro descendants as well as members of the LGBT community.
Concluding remarks: trapped between a rock and a hard place
The unprecedented scale of the Venezuelan refugee crisis in Colombia has taken both the government and society by surprise, leading to a range of improvised measures as well as a polarisation in attitudes towards those escaping Maduro´s regime. The government’s lack of political experience, its fluctuation between approaches both at the foreign and domestic policy levels, leave desperate Venezuelans with very confusing options for survival in Colombia. Equally concerning are the social conditions in which Venezuelans integrate into Colombian society, where divisions and polarisation stemming from a deeply rooted conflict have now become the source of harassment, discrimination, and violence against the newly arrived migrants. The minuscule gap between the rock and the hard place leaves Venezuelan migrants balancing precariously without the safety net of citizenship rights. This ensures prolonged and continuous hardships in Colombia and elsewhere, until changes in discourse, policy and societal attitudes create a larger space for progression.
Thank you to Dr Louis Monroy-Santander for this important, articulate and insightful article. Lou is an expert in post-conflict peace-building in Europe and South America from the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.