Venezuelan Diaspora in Colombia

Demographic Economics - Migration

Colombia did not mind when thousands of engineers and oil company executives migrated here from Venezuela, starting in 2002. There had been a mass exodus at PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.), the Venezuelan government-owned oil and natural gas company, when President Hugo Chávez fired 19,000 employees after a general strike. Colombia was happy to make use of the technical knowledge and expertise of these workers for their own oil and gas industry.

However, due to chronic unemployment, poverty, shortages of food and medicine, government corruption, failures of the electric grid, and 10 million percent inflation, emigration from Venezuela to Colombia has greatly increased since 2015. Out of almost 5 million refugees leaving Venezuela, Colombia has the greatest number living there at 1.8 million, according to the United Nations. And with US-led sanctions further crippling the economy, the number of Venezuelans leaving for Colombia is steadily increasing, despite the border being officially closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Xenophobia on the Rise

A Gallup poll conducted in October 2020 in Colombia found that 69% of respondents have an unfavorable view of Venezuelans arriving in the country, and 72% believe that after the pandemic, borders must remain closed so that no more immigrants from Venezuela can enter. Colombians are blaming Venezuelan migrants for rising crime, unemployment and the spread of the virus. The poll also reported that 80% of those surveyed disagreed with the government’s management of the crisis.

In fact, a 2020 report from Banco de la República found that Venezuelans in Colombia are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. 

A Colombian paramilitary group called Aguilas Negras (the Black Eagles) has been distributing leaflets throughout the country, threatening “social cleansing” of Venezuelans. 

In December 2019, violence erupted in Bogotá during a nationwide strike causing authorities to impose a citywide curfew. Rumors were rampant on social media posts that blamed Venezuelan migrants for isolated looting and vandalism, causing a sharp rise in xenophobia.

The message that Venezuelans are not welcome comes from average citizens as well as government officials. In December 2020, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that undocumented Venezuelan migrants would not receive vaccinations for the Coronavirus, despite concerns that this could lead to more infections for Colombians.

"Of course they won't get it," Duque told a Bogotá radio station. "Otherwise we would have a stampede with the whole world crossing the border to get vaccinated."

Colombian police are now stepping up operations to deport undocumented migrants who make up more than half of all Venezuelan newcomers, immigration officials report.

Worldwide Response

With many countries facing crises of their own with the economic fallout from the Coronavirus, it has been challenging to raise funds to help with the Venezuelan diaspora. In 2020, the United Nations called for international funding of $750 million for assistance inside Venezuela, and $1.35 billion to help five million Venezuelans living in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The effort remains greatly underfunded as compared to similar migrations from Syria and Sudan. According to the Brookings Institution, donors contributed an average of $1,500 per Syrian refugee as compared to $125 per Venezuelan refugee. It is even lower now with the Covid-19 pandemic.

International financing could help improve local infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, schools and electricity as well as basic humanitarian needs. Credit can be expanded for local companies to help offset the large increase in the labor force.

The Colombian government has already provided over $229 million to help alleviate the effects of the influx of migrants from Venezuela in high refugee density areas. Called the "Impact Plan," it includes special lines of credit of $64.2 million for investment in social infrastructure for health and education, cultural industries, water and sanitation, and renewable energy. A $3.1 million line of credit will be used to promote investments in industrial equipment and technology. The Agrarian Bank will offer $3.1 million in loans for fisherman since part of the border contains several large rivers. This bank will also open $4.8 million in loans for the planting and renewal of cocoa crops.    

Since 2018, 95 organizations from 16 countries have been working together to devise a comprehensive response to the needs of the millions of refugees from Venezuela and their host communities. This is being coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).    

The UNHCR has launched a series of initiatives to try to combat xenophobia in Colombia. They initiated a campaign last year called “Somos panas” (“We’re mates”) to remind Colombians they were helped by Venezuela when thousands fled there during Colombia’s 50-year civil war.

However, countries have yet to agree on a comprehensive response plan to improve border management, implement a cross-border identification system, devise a voluntary regional reallocation plan, and make joint infrastructure investments. It is hoped that Venezuelan President Juan Guaido, who is now recognized by 60 countries as the legitimate president, will help lead regional efforts to search for diplomatic solutions to the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

"The Colombian government is aware of the courage that the inhabitants of the border areas have shown, and therefore has been working to structure this situation so that it becomes a platform for social and economic strengthening,” said the Colombian vice president Marta Lucía Ramírez in 2019.

Working together with the international finance community, the United Nations and countries in Latin America affected by the diaspora will hopefully result in workable solutions before the situation continues to worsen.  

Suzanne Driscoll is a freelance writer for Sharemoney from St. Petersburg, Florida. She has written for national publications on issues involving business, healthcare, education and immigration.

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