Colombia Grants Almost 2 Million Undocumented Migrants the Right to Stay

Migrants will also have a path to citizenship. The decision sets an important example in a region that has seen humanitarian crises due to migration in recent years.
February 10, 2021, 2:41pm
Migrants use a rope to cross the Tachira river between Colombia and Venezuela on November 19, 2020.
Migrants use a rope to cross the Tachira river between Colombia and Venezuela on November 19, 2020. The official border remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA, AFP via Getty Images.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia - Colombia is to grant Venezuelan immigrants and asylum seekers the right to stay in the country for ten years, and those who register with the government will be allowed to work and start on a path to full citizenship. 

The news is being praised as a historic and humanitarian example for Latin America, which in recent years has seen humanitarian crises erupt across the region due to migration. 

The United Nations estimates that since 2015, 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their country due to violence, insecurity and threats as well as lack of food, medicine and essential services. More than 1.7 million of those migrants are currently in Colombia. 

Most arrive penniless and on foot, entering the country irregularly through informal paths across the countries’ long and porous shared border, which since its official closure due to the COVID-19 health crisis in March 2020 has become more dangerous.

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The move represents a sharp departure from other countries in the region such as Ecuador and Peru, which have militarized their currently closed borders in an attempt to stop illegal migration. It also represents a radically different approach by a country with far less resources than that of the U.S, which under the administration of former President Donald Trump took a hardline approach to immigration, forcing asylum seekers to wait in squalid camps and poor conditions over the border in Mexico as their cases were processed in the U.S. President Joe Biden has rolled some of those policies back, but thousands are still waiting in Mexican border cities. 

Colombia’s new measure, called “Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV by its Spanish acronym), also includes a provision offering those same protections to migrants who enter the country legally at official checkpoints during the next two years.

Migrants and asylum-seekers will be granted full access to Colombian health and education systems.

For Venezuelans who live here, the measures are an unexpected salvation. 

“The idea that Venezuelans will finally be fully included in Colombian society is a powerful one,” said Javier José García, a Venezuelan street artist who works in the Colombian capital Bogotá alongside his girlfriend, Paula Villamizar Guerrero.  “I hope it shows that despite a recent rise in xenophobic sentiment, we are contributing to this country.”

Villamizar Guerrero, who entered the country two years ago informally through the dangerous smuggling trails Colombians call trochas, says it means an end to living in fear. 

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“When I’m working, I’m always worried the police will check my I.D. I’m afraid that if I gather with other Venezuelans, we might be targeted.” She pointed to recent high-profile media stories of Venezuelans being deported for illegal gatherings during COVID-related lockdown measures. “Fear isolates me from my friends, from my culture.”

“There is a perception among migrants with irregular status that going to the police, or enrolling in official programs could be dangerous,” said Adam Issacson, borders director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S. think tank on Latin American policy. 

“It’s irrelevant whether that perception is correct or not. This decision sends a strong message of inclusion, and although it’s likely to be controversial in Colombia, it is clearly the morally correct course of action to protect a vulnerable community,” he said.

The decision to offer a full welcome to most migrants comes as violence is increasing in Colombia, especially in rural areas, and after recent comments by some politicians that critics described as xenophobic. The Mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, was roundly criticized for comments in November claiming that “Those [Venezuelans] who come here to commit crime are making the lives of Bogotanos more difficult.”

Garcia, the street artist in Bogotá, said: “I was in a taxi last week and the driver was complaining to me about the venecos (a derogatory term describing Venezuelan migrants).

“How they steal jobs, how they are all prostitutes and thieves. He asked me where I was from. ‘Cucuta’, I responded, on the Colombian border. I was fearful of a confrontation.”

He hopes that with the help of these new measures he can one day truthfully respond, “I am Colombian.”

Migration experts have long pointed to data that Venezuelan migrants are far more likely to be the victims of crime than perpetrators, and that their lack of legal status makes them more vulnerable. Economic worries have also driven criticism by those who oppose the measure.

“It’s a risky move politically, especially ahead of next year's elections” said Sergio Gúzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogotá. “But the economic data we have on the migration suggests that it has already been a net positive for the Colombian economy. This inclusion will only benefit Colombia in the long term.”