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Amid rising Venezuelan immigration to Colombia, a migrant walks along a street in Bogota. A Venezuelan migrant, cradling a baby, walks along a street in Bogota, Colombia, April 4, 2019 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).

Will Colombia’s Generous Attitude Toward Venezuelan Migrants Last?

Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019

Colombian President Ivan Duque has announced a generous policy toward Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, including giving citizenship to children born in Colombia. With Venezuelan immigration likely to continue, though, Colombia needs to begin thinking about the migrants' long-term needs.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series on immigration and integration policy around the world.

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Colombia has historically been a source of migration rather than a destination, but that has changed in recent years due largely to the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Approximately 1.4 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia in recent years, according to the United Nations, with potentially hundreds of thousands more expected before the end of the year. As part of his government’s response to rising Venezuelan immigration to Colombia, President Ivan Duque announced last month that 24,000 children born to Venezuelan refugees would be granted Colombian citizenship.

The measure is a step in the right direction, says Beatriz Eugenia Sánchez-Mojica, an expert in migration policy and international human rights law at IE University in Spain. But as she explains in an email interview with WPR, Colombia has sought to address the presence of Venezuelan migrants with a series of ad hoc measures, when what it really needs is a long-term approach to the issue.

World Politics Review: How have decades of violent conflict and civil strife in Colombia affected its approach to migrants from Venezuela?

Beatriz Eugenia Sánchez-Mojica: Colombia’s long internal conflict has affected the government’s approach to Venezuelan migrants in several ways. First, persistent strife in Colombia meant that Venezuela was traditionally a destination country for both forced and voluntary Colombian migration. In 2007, the year that Colombian emigration to Venezuela peaked, the United Nations refugee agency reported that 200,000 Colombians were living in Venezuela as refugees or asylum-seekers.

The fact that Venezuela accepted this population and provided shelter to Colombians for decades has definitely helped shape Colombia’s response to the more recent influx from Venezuela. Granted, a significant number of those border-crossers have been Colombians returning home from Venezuela with their families, so measures had to be taken to accept and assist this population. At the same time, as Colombia’s previous foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, repeatedly affirmed at the height of the migrant crisis, there was a moral duty to repay the Venezuelan people for the solidarity they showed to Colombians in the past. However, this ideal of reciprocity has faded from the government’s public statements more recently.

Colombia has also repeatedly accused the Venezuelan government of providing shelter, funds and even military training to Colombia’s largest guerrilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN. This has further embittered an already complicated bilateral relationship. By opening their doors to Venezuelan migrants, Colombian authorities sought to make a statement about what they see as President Nicolas Maduro’s lack of legitimacy, as well as his government’s inability to provide assistance and protection to its own citizens.

But after more than 50 years of coping with an internal armed conflict, Colombia has limited resources to assist new migrants from Venezuela. As a result of those decades of strife, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, and it is still struggling to develop durable solutions for them.

WPR: How successfully has President Ivan Duque’s government handled Venezuelan immigration? How significant was his move last month to grant citizenship to 24,000 children born to Venezuelans on Colombian soil?

Sánchez-Mojica: Because Colombia has always been an immigrant-sending country, not an immigrant-accepting country, it lacks an established institutional framework for accepting large numbers of foreigners. Also, Colombia’s legal system does not take a human rights-oriented approach when it comes to immigration. In spite of some recent decisions at the Constitutional Court that upheld the fundamental rights of foreigners, Colombia’s response to the crisis in Venezuela has been crafted mostly through ad hoc humanitarian measures.

Duque has followed the blueprint set forth by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, by keeping in place many of the provisional mechanisms that he inherited when he took office last year. However, Duque also has made some attempts to implement long-term remedies to improve social wellbeing and quality of life in regions hosting migrants, benefiting both immigrants and host communities. Last April, he announced an ambitious plan to mitigate the impacts of the migrant crisis along the border with Venezuela—a combination of 50 new measures to enhance health services, education and housing provisions, as well as to promote local entrepreneurship and increase public investment, among others. This is a step in the right direction, but its success will depend on how it is implemented. Public policy implementation in Colombia tends to be hampered by corruption, a lack of resources and a lack of political will on the part of regional and local authorities.

The decision to grant citizenship to over 24,000 children born to Venezuelans on Colombian soil is another step in the right direction. It fulfills Colombia’s national and international legal obligations with regard to children’s rights. The fact that any child can be registered despite their parents’ legal status is particularly valuable. Nevertheless, the measure was just approved in August, so it is too soon to assess its impact.

WPR: What other unique challenges does Colombia face as it tries to receive and assimilate migrants from Venezuela, particularly given its historical experience as primarily a source of out-migration?

Sánchez-Mojica: I believe the main challenge for Colombia’s government will be to adopt a long-term strategy on the issue, treating the inflow of Venezuelans as a semi-permanent issue. That means developing a public policy that not only protects the rights of Venezuelan migrants but also facilitates their integration into the local communities where they have found shelter. This is a major issue in a country passing through a particularly complex post-conflict process and still struggling to develop durable solutions for over 7 million internally displaced people. The temporary nature of most of the measures approved to deal with the Venezuelan exodus reveals the authorities’ belief that Venezuelan migrants will return to their home country before too long. But that is an unlikely scenario, even if Maduro were to fall. Most of the Venezuelans who have arrived in Colombia in recent years are there to stay for several years at least. The question is whether Colombia’s government, as well as society writ large, can accept this fact and develop measures to cope with it.

To make matters worse, other countries in the region with large populations of Venezuelan migrants, including Ecuador, Peru and Chile, have recently tightened their visa requirements. That is likely to force more Venezuelans to stay in Colombia, increasing the pressure on Colombia’s immigration system.

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