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Colombia’s Support for Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees

There are over six million Venezuelan migrants and refugees globally, more than 1.8 million of whom live in neighboring Colombia. These individuals have fled a country suffering from years of economic hardship and political strife. And still today, the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate leading to projections that emigration will continue, with Colombia receiving an outsized proportion of migrants. Just this year, over 753,000 Venezuelans have left home.

Distinct from most migrant and refugee stories in recent years, Colombia has responded to this influx with a suite of policies aimed at integrating Venezuelans, rather than deterring them.7,8 This has been roundly welcomed by the global migrant and refugee protection communities, which now wait in hope for signs that the Colombia model will not only succeed but prove replicable elsewhere. That said, Colombia’s migration and refugee policy, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has rightfully lauded as, “the most important humanitarian gesture” in decades, is facing challenges from all sides. Recent years of escalating border violence, growing poverty and food insecurity, strained social systems, domestic discontent, and heightened xenophobia—all aggravated by the global pandemic and an unprecedented economic shock—have given rise to a new constellation of hardship. While Colombia has remained committed to its integration policy, it has not received adequate international funding. As the Petro administration settles in, international support is urgently needed both to enable Colombia’s sustained commitment to Venezuelan migrants and refugees, and to signal to the world that such a rights-based act of solidarity does not only rely on national efforts but will also garner international backing. 

Colombia’s commitment to a progressive migration policy response has remained consistent, even as contexts have changed, and presidents have transitioned. The Venezuelan exodus into Colombia began to increase during the Colombian presidency of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018). After instituting the Peace Accords that ended decades of conflict with the paramilitary group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC), Santos’ government turned its attention to expanding regularization pathways for Venezuelan migrants fleeing deteriorating conditions in the north of Venezuela. In 2017, Colombia instituted the Permiso Especial de Permanencia (Special Permit of Permanence or PEP), which provides two years of regular migration status to Venezuelans while also opening access to the labor market and social services. Not without its limitations, this policy offers a pathway to temporary regular status for migrants and refugees.

In 2018, the presidency transitioned to Iván Duque, who chose to maintain national efforts to prioritize integration, rather than deterrence. A 2019 decision to grant full citizenship to roughly 30,000 children of Venezuelan migrants and refugees born in-country is a key example of Colombia’s sustained commitment to integration and social protection. In the same year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supported the government in developing the Income Generation Strategy for Migrants from Venezuela and Host Communities (IGS). This strategy underpins the country’s efforts to create integration pathways through the labor market which also opens access to social services, education, and healthcare.14 Such a strategy reflects a long-term view on migration policy—recognizing that migrants and citizens alike benefit from facilitated integration rather than ad hoc holdover policy responses. 

Alongside PEP and the income generation strategy, Colombia offers an assortment of accompanying programs to fill in gaps in coverage. The Border Mobility Card, for example, enables circular migration patterns for residents who live along the Venezuelan-Colombian border and regularly cross over to purchase food, access medical care, or study.For unsuccessful refugee applicants, there exists a Special Complementary Permanence Permit (PECP), a legal avenue to work and conduct activities in Colombia for 90 days at a time. Meanwhile the Special Permanence Permit for the Promotion of Regularization facilitates employment as a means towards regular status. In addition to these policies, Colombia adopted a COVID-19 six-point plan for supporting Venezuelan migrants that includes COVID-19 health service access, humanitarian corridors, cooperation programs, targeted assistance in high-risk areas, a focus on protecting the most vulnerable groups, and coordination with multi-level government and non-governmental stakeholders. 

These initiatives were already notable at a time of rising anti-refugee and antimigrant sentiments worldwide, and then Colombia went even further. In February 2021, the government expanded regularization pathways via a statute that created ten-year regularization status for existing undocumented Venezuelan migrants, estimated at one million people, called the Estatuto Temporal de Protección para Migrantes Venezolanos (ETPV), and enabled access to formal work and healthcare services. This policy also opened a pathway for those with legal status to extend their stay, and still today, it continues to benefit those who enter the country legally until January 31, 2023.22 The statute has been considered, “perhaps the most generous amnesty program to undocumented immigrants in modern history.”

This multilayered migration approach, if successful, will not only benefit Venezuelans who seek haven and opportunity, but also Colombia and its citizens. There is a growing consensus among experts that migrants and refugees constitute an economic benefit, not a burden, when they are included in the social and economic life of their host country. If successful, the strategy could provide a model for progressive, “win-win” migration and refugee policies elsewhere in the world.

…read more in the report from NYU Center on International Cooperation here.

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