As Venezuelans flee, Colombia's welcome walks a 'very fine line'

Colombia, which borders Venezuela, has borne the brunt of Venezuelan migration amid the Maduro government's economic crisis. Bogotá has taken steps to toughen the border, but also to better integrate many migrants who have already arrived.

Manuel Rueda
Andrés Carrizales, a Venezuelan migrant now living in Colombia, photographed in Bogotá on March 18, 2018. Mr. Carrizales ran a small soap and shampoo factory at home. Now he works as a security guard in Bogotá's Central Cemetery.

When Yenisel Perez arrived in the Colombian capital last summer without any savings, she managed to find work – but only for $5 per day. The small barber shop where she styled hair was one of the few places willing to hire an undocumented worker like herself.

But the Colombian government’s recent decision to grant residence permits to some Venezuelan migrants has broadened her horizons. Now, Ms. Perez works in a fancier salon near the city’s airport, where office workers come in for pedicures, or to flat-iron their hair. She says she’s earning three times as much as in her previous job, and has saved enough to bring her 21-year-old son over from Venezuela.

“I have more options now” says Perez. “The beauty salons in the [wealthy] north of the city all demand that you have proper working papers. It was a part of the city that was shut down to me before.”

Colombian officials say at least 300,000 Venezuelans fled here last year, escaping poverty, hunger, and violence as inflation under the government of Nicolás Maduro soared to 6,000 percent and democratic institutions declined. Tens of thousands more have settled in other South American countries like Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina in what has become one of the world’s most massive migration events.

With no end in sight, Colombia and other countries in the region are now trying to come up with more long-term policies. So far Colombia, where the bulk of Venezuelans have arrived, has taken a “hesitant” approach, according to Laura Gil, an international relations expert and United Nations consultant based in Bogotá. There have been some steps to better integrate newcomers, and others to keep them out in the first place.

The government has stopped issuing border crossing permits that allowed Venezuelans to stock up on supplies and return, for example, and is increasingly deporting those who are in the country without papers. But it has also implemented measures to legalize migrants already in Colombia, many of whom had overstayed their short-term permits, in an effort to benefit them and their host country alike.

“We have become a big laboratory for immigration policy that could provide the world with some lessons,” says Ronal Rodríguez, a political science professor at Bogotá’s El Rosario University. “This is a population that will spend at least the next decade here…. Faced with the dimensions of this crisis, we will have to come up with creative solutions to this problem.”

Work benefits

Last year, Colombia’s government decided to grant two-year residence permits, known as PEP, to Venezuelans who had arrived in the country before July 28. Early this year, it extended the same permits: Venezuelans who legally arrived in the country before Feb. 2, with no criminal record, can now apply for temporary residence.  

Christian Krüger, the director of Colombia’s national immigration service, has said the temporary residence permit helps keep people out of the shadows, and makes them less vulnerable to employers who would try to exploit their status as undocumented workers.

He also said in February that Colombia wants to “help” Venezuelans who are chafing under the country’s economic crisis.

“We cannot forget that we were in a similar situation a couple decades ago,” Mr. Krüger said in a February press conference – referring to the hundreds of thousands of Colombians who fled to Venezuela, Ecuador, and the United States in the 1980s and ’90s to escape decades of fighting between guerrilla groups, right-wing death squads, drug gangs, and the government.

But Colombia may also benefit. By providing residence permits, the government can keep better track of how many Venezuelans are actually in the country, and who they are. Previously, Ms. Gil says, “even at the border bridges there were no proper checkpoints to see who is coming in and who is leaving”: people passed through a supermarket-style turnstile after showing ID to an immigration officer. Work permits may also make economic sense – Venezuelans who are now legally employed will have to make social security payments, offsetting some of the health care costs that their influx has created.

“As we improve our capacity to legalize foreigners who are in our country, we will be able to plan for the future,” Krüger says.

Walking a 'fine line'

But for many Venezuelans, the new rules are still far from ideal. The residence permits are only being given to Venezuelans who arrived in Colombia with their passport before the required date. Thousands have entered without them, in part because paper and ink shortages in Venezuela have made new passports increasingly difficult to obtain. The process can take months, and many Venezuelans say they have needed to bribe officials in order to receive one.

“The government will have to find other ways to legalize Venezuelans who stream into the country,” says Professor Rodríguez, an expert on Venezuela. He also notes that the current residence permits only last two years, and Colombia will have to come up with new solutions for Venezuelans who still want to stay after that.

“Incoming governments will have to make tough decisions on immigration policy,” he says.

Gil says that Colombia is walking a “very fine line,” and too many benefits may generate even more immigration.

The incoming waves of Venezuelans seeking medical help has already put a strain on Colombian hospitals. Many come into the country with little cash and sleep on the streets of border cities, which has created tensions with police and local residents.

Poised to grow?

In February, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the government would no longer issue short term border-crossing permits, used by Venezuelans who live near Colombia to enter for food, supplies, and medical care. Those permits, the government said, were being used too often to work in Colombia illegally. Mr. Santos also increased the number of border patrol officers, in what he described as an attempt to stop the smuggling of goods and people.

It might not be enough to stem migration, however. The International Organization for Migration estimates that the number of Venezuelans leaving their country for other parts of the continent has increased sevenfold in just three years. Colombia’s government estimates that the number of Venezuelans living there doubled over the past year, from 300,000 people to 600,000.

“When you are in a desperate position and need to feed your family, you migrate, even if you don’t have the proper documents,” says Andrés Carrizales, who arrived in Colombia last year. Mr. Carrizales, who now works in Colombia legally as a cemetery security guard, says he wants to bring his wife and daughters from Venezuela, but is waiting for them to get a passport, which he says is fiendishly difficult.

Ultimately, Colombia and the wider region will have to work together to find solutions, Gil says, such as a joint fund to finance humanitarian assistance, or a job bank where countries could list the type of labor they need. Peru has also issued temporary residence permits for Venezuelans, and Argentina has made it easier for them to apply for residency. Panama has moved in the opposite direction, toughening entry requirements.

Perez, the hair stylist in Bogotá, says that as long as the current government is in power, she will not return to Venezuela. She expects other family members to make the same decision.  “I have to take care of my two daughters and put them through school,” she says. “In Venezuela that was no longer a possibility.”

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