Colombia’s decision to legalize Venezuelan migrants reignites refugee debate

. Feb 13, 2021
Colombia decision to legalize Venezuelan migrants reignites refugee debate Venezuelan migrants on the streets of Bogota. Photo: Daniel Andres Garzon/Shutterstock

Battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, some 10 percent of Latin America’s workforce is currently out of a job. This figure — an all-time record — has caused alarm in the United Nations, combined with the prediction that the ongoing Venezuelan migrant crisis could see 6 million people flee the nation by the end of this year. The topic gained significant attention this week, after right-wing Colombian President Iván Duque announced he would legalize 1.7 million undocumented Venezuelan migrants in his country, providing them with ten-year work and residency visas.

Mr. Duque’s unexpected humanitarian gesture drew comparisons to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome 1 million refugees into her country during the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015.

And, as it was in Europe, Colombia&#8217;s decision is not being repeated region-wide. Addressing the increasing number of Venezuelans in desperate situations will require multilateral action, as opposed to one-off measures. </p> <p>But this is far from becoming a reality. Days after Colombia’s decision, the Chilean government announced it would send 100 undocumented Venezuelan migrants to <a href="">Colombia</a> and Venezuela, after the group attempted to enter the country across the Bolivian border. </p> <p>Chile&#8217;s Interior Minister Rodrigo Delgado said the decision to deport the migrants is backed up by “administrative” and “judicial” reasons. Since 2014, Chile has registered more than 500,000 Venezuelans within its borders, but has shown no official plan to help those seeking asylum.</p> <h2>No one-size-fits-all solution</h2> <p>Indeed, the lack of a pattern between countries on migration issues is a concern for international organizations. In response, the UN Agency for Refugees created a multilateral plan involving more than 158 agencies and NGOs to raise USD 1.44 billion to assist 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled to 17 different countries.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is often said that the coronavirus &#8216;does not discriminate,&#8217; but the reality is that the pandemic does discriminate: low-income and ethnic minority populations have been disproportionately affected,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, when talking about the importance of fast global action to avoid creating a larger Venezuelan diaspora.&nbsp;</p> <p>Unable to count on the assistance of governments, the UN has turned to religious institutions and members of the Red Cross to provide assistance and avoid worsening the impact of the pandemic on migrant populations.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to José Félix Rodríguez, coordinator of Migration, Social Inclusion, and Non-Violence of the International Red Cross in the Americas, those who migrate are exposed to increased risk, such as the possibility of <a href="">suffering physical, emotional, or property damage</a>. Unfortunately, Latin America&#8217;s nations are far from having the level of integration required to fight the problem. </p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="Venezuelan migrants demonstrate in Paseo Bulnes, Chile. Photo: ENE Photos/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-56683" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Venezuelan migrants demonstrate in Paseo Bulnes, Chile. Photo: ENE Photos/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>“We must move towards a more comprehensive, inclusive and articulated response that guarantees dignified treatment and combats discrimination and stigma; a response that along its way takes into account the needs of groups subjected to greater vulnerability, such as people affected by violence, pregnant women, and transgender women, for example,” he tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>The Red Cross definition of “migrants” — as anyone leaving or fleeing their home to seek safety or better prospects, and who may be at risk and in need of protection or humanitarian assistance — shows that countries need to follow Colombia’s lead, by opening doors, not closing them.&nbsp;</p> <p>And when organizations talk about the need for integration, they also require countries to use intelligence and technology to provide a better environment for these migrants.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Countries must think about providing accessible information, on the risks of the migrant route and how to manage them. This would help prevent situations that threaten people’s health and safety. Explaining what to do in a difficult situation and where to find support is also a key point that governments should invest in.”</p> <h2>The ideological conflict around migration</h2> <p>Regional consensus on migration is non-existent in Latin America as a result of deep political divides. Even with Mr. Duque&#8217;s seemingly noble gesture in Colombia, his decision also carries an ideological component: by <a href="">welcoming Venezuelans</a>, the move can serve to put pressure on Venezuela&#8217;s President Nicolás Maduro, who Mr. Duque repeatedly blames for its neighbor&#8217;s humanitarian crisis. </p> <p>And Mr. Duque&#8217;s latest decision is a gamble. Three out of four Colombians are opposed to legalizing undocumented Venezuelans, in a mix of xenophobia and fear of increased job competition.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Brazil dismissed the migration issue, with President Jair Bolsonaro deciding to <a href="">pull the country out</a> of the United Nations migration pact. According to Mr. Rodríguez, these multilateral efforts are precisely what need to be upheld in order to promote a better and safe migratory scenario across Latin America.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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