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How open is Colombia to the reception of Venezuelan migrants?

Today, around 1,200,000 Venezuelan migrants live in Colombia, however reception policies are still in the process of design and implementation. Español

Jerónimo Pareja
30 April 2019
Cultural mural in Puerto Ayacucho. Wikimedia Commons.

Reception policies are still in the process of design and implementation. So far mostly focused on emergency response, Colombia is gradually shifting its policies towards a process of integration, which would fulfill the rights and the well-being of Venezuelan migrants.

Today, around 1,200,000 Venezuelan migrants live in Colombia. Venezuela’s current social and economic crisis has driven many to look for better living conditions abroad, however for a great deal this has proven difficult in a country striving to provide solutions yet failing to effectively integrate them into society.

Yet to view migration solely in numbers will distance us from the daily reality the migrants have to face: the thousands of families that have been constrained to emigrate without money, with children, many times by crossing rivers or walking on train tracks.

Many Venezuelan migrants do not have a way to regularise their migratory status in Colombia and as a result cannot look for employment in the formal market, receive public health insurance nor can they count on federal support to guarantee their rights.

Since 2015 when massive migration from Venezuela began, Colombia focused on policies identifying and regularising migrants that would maintain national security, according to the Strategy for the Attention of Migration from Venezuela published by the Colombian government in November 2018.

The included Special Permanency Permit - PEP - emerged as a way of creating access to institutional provisions and all the social rights that correspond to a state, in the interest of protecting migrants’ human rights.

With PEP, Venezuelan migrants can look for work in the formal market, open a bank account, become a part of the public health system and gain access to education.

The measure is currently not in force, however, and only applies to the Venezuelans that entered Colombia before December 17 last year through a border control post and have a corresponding stamp on their passport.

But what about those Venezuelans who entered the country through train tracks? What happens to those that do not have a passport or who did not enter the country within the prescribed dates?

But what about those Venezuelans who entered the country through rail tracks? What happens to those that do not have a passport or who did not enter the country within the prescribed dates?

In principle, the PEP measure is exclusionary. It is at odds with migratory contexts, which make the regularisation of people difficult, as for example usually occurs in Europe and the United States, and is conditioned by type and date of entry into the country.

The reality of those Venezuelan migrants who do not manage to regularise their residency in Colombia is marked by informal work and a lack of health coverage, two basic pillars of survival.

Many of these, including the highly educated ones, simply do not have a choice but to devote themselves to selling sweets, empanadas and cafe (amongst other items) on the streets, which gives them just enough profit to afford a place to sleep and maybe eat once or twice a day.

Moreover, they are entitled to free medical attention in public hospitals in cases of emergency, but then, what exactly constitutes an emergency? The measures are creating a gap in which hospitals themselves become responsible for classifying situations as emergency or not at their own discretion, hence leaving migrants unprotected.

Nevertheless, the Colombian government has made an effort to respond to the migratory phenomenon in terms of health provision. Ministry of Health created a response plan for Venezuelan migrants with certain basic outlines that guarantee people’s access to health care.

For pregnant and lactating women as well as children up to five years of age, assistance is guaranteed independent of their migratory status. For other equally relevant treatments however, i.e. chronic diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS or diabetes, there is no state provision available for migrants who do not have a legal residency in the country.

In other sectors public policies are not sufficiently developed as of yet. In education for example, the state only guarantees access to public schools for children and adolescents regardless of whether they have a regular or irregular residency in the country.

In fact, in July 2018 21.746 minors who were born in Venezuela were matriculated at Colombia’s educational institutions. In contrast, adults do not have an option to enter higher education without a regular migratory status. This makes it difficult to not only strengthen their capabilities but their ability to enter the labour force as well.

Venezuelan migrants are therefore mainly relegated to the informal market, which leads to frequent sexual and labour exploitation.

With regards to employment, Venezuelan migrants are mostly relegated to the informal market, which leads to frequent sexual and labour exploitation.

Since they are prevented from working formally they cannot secure labour contracts that would guarantee them dignified work conditions, nor can they become affiliated with, or contribute their salaries to the social security system that would guarantee them pensions and access to health care.

In the end, this limbo violates their rights and represents a further fiscal burden for the State, which ultimately has to look after them in cases of medical emergency as well as provide primary and secondary education for their children.

Since informal work is the only guarantee of survival for many Venezuelans and the sectors in which they usually work in do not require high levels of education, migrants have come to represent competition for Colombians in need of similar kinds of jobs.

Many cases of xenophobia have arisen in a country, whose unemployment rate in February of this year amounted to 11,8%, as a consequence. In fact, the recently published report by the National Administrative Department of Statistics - DANE - showed that for each ten new jobs posted, seven went to Venezuelans. Reactions after the news spread were filled with xenophobic commentaries, which further problematises their integration into Colombian society.

How can the situation of Venezuelan migrants be resolved? There is no simple answer to this, however trends that could help in consolidating a more solid public reception policy can be discerned. The first step would be setting up additional regulatory mechanisms that would permit the inclusion of people who will not stop leaving Venezuela on account of the crisis in their country.

Second, further attention needs to be given to primary sectors such as education, employment, health and housing by understanding that health is not the only component behind the integration of migrants and that access to rights cannot be conditioned on the basis of migrants’ regular or irregular status. Additionally, in the cross-cutting fields of the integration process, public policy must be accompanied with actions that fight prejudice and xenophobia.

All in all, Colombia has made a great effort to adequately receive Venezuelan migrants. Of course, there is still much to be done and much left to improve but it is important to remember that the intentions of this country have never been to close itself off from a social crisis taking place in a neighbouring state.

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