What’s new? Close to 2.5 million Venezuelans are living in Colombia, having fled their home country’s economic collapse and political crisis. While Bogotá has generously offered residency rights, many migrants and refugees nevertheless face extreme hardship and have few resources to sustain themselves.
Why does it matter? Thriving armed and criminal groups in Colombia’s cities and countryside have absorbed Venezuelans as cheap recruits, often deploying them for high-visibility crimes while exposing them to great physical danger. Xenophobia toward Venezuelans has risen sharply, surging during periods of unrest.
What should be done? The new Colombian government and donors should cooperate to improve protection of arriving migrants, including by diverting them from violent areas, and help them get access to the formal labour market. Rebuilding ties between Colombia and Venezuela will be vital to giving migrants an option to return safely home.
Colombia has welcomed millions of Venezuelans fleeing their homeland, but many remain at risk in the country. Venezuelans have fanned out across the Americas, but by far the largest number, close to 2.5 million, have settled in Colombia, where governments sympathetic to the distress across the border and cool to leaders in Caracas have offered them residency and services. These policies stand out for their compassion but are not matched by sufficient economic or other support. Penniless migrants and refugees are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many have little choice but to rely on informal work and are vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups or street gangs. As the Venezuelans’ role in criminal outfits has grown more prominent, xenophobia directed at them has also increased. To break this cycle, Colombian authorities should work with partners to offer better protections for Venezuelans and to strengthen legal economic opportunities. Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s plan to restore dialogue with Caracas will be essential to ensuring that migrants can pass safely between the two countries.
Escaping a huge economic contraction, rising insecurity, collapsing public services and a political crackdown, over six million migrants and refugees from Venezuela have sought a new, safer life abroad over the past decade – with most leaving home since 2017. From these Venezuelans’ perspective, Colombia boasts several attractions as a destination: it shares a porous 2,200km frontier with its neighbour, making it possible albeit dangerous to cross, even when official borders are closed; its governments have been highly critical of Caracas; and it has offered residency and access to public services to the newcomers. Moreover, until the onset of COVID-19, its economy was enjoying steady growth, with thriving labour markets in its big cities.
But in other ways Colombia is one of the least suitable Latin American countries to receive a mass migrant exodus. Over decades, various fronts of a vicious, multipronged internal war caused the country to suffer some of the world’s highest rates of forced displacement – and drove out millions of migrants and refugees. Colombia has had no previous experience of offering shelter and respite to so many migrants, and its lack of know-how and capacity is conspicuous. The country’s cash-based informal economy accounts for close to half of all jobs and is characterised by paltry, erratic pay – particularly for Venezuelans, who, for lack of formal alternatives, often accept wages considerably lower than what locals receive.
In poor rural areas, both close to the border with Venezuela and in remote corners elsewhere, the most easily available employment is often to be found in illicit business and among armed and criminal groups. Despite the 2016 agreement with the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which brought an end to the country’s largest insurgency and mapped out a route to lasting peace, splinter groups (known as “dissident” factions) and other armed bands continue to coerce communities and perpetrate acts of violence throughout large parts of the country. Migrants have been immersed in conflict zones with no understanding of the unwritten rules for survival. Coca production and illegal mining have become major sources of work for Venezuelans; human trafficking and sexual exploitation plague border towns (and big cities as well), with women and minors in special danger. Gender-based violence is safe passage in both directions will require far more cooperation between the two states, as well as support from international agencies.
Colombia’s offer of a safe haven for Venezuelans is both a grand gesture of solidarity and a promise the country has been hard pressed to meet. Stronger protection upon migrants’ arrival, clear routes to the formal labour market, restored bilateral ties and a safe way to return home if desired are vital to protecting migrants from the lures and dangers of crime and exploitation, with all the ill effects that those may bring.
Bogotá/Washington/Brussels, 9 August 2022