‘The world’s largest forced migration crisis you have never heard of’: How Colombia is accommodating over a million Venezuelan migrants

Over five million people have left Venezuela since 2015, making this one of the world’s largest migrant crises with potential to surpass the Syrian refugee emergency. But despite the severity of the issue, lack of representation in global media outlets has earned it the label: “the world’s largest forced migration crisis you have never heard of”. Around 1.6 million Venezuelans reside in Colombia alone, making up roughly 3% of Colombia’s population, although this figure is thought to be higher given the large number of undocumented migrants.

This migrant emergency differs greatly to those  caused by environmental disasters or war. In Venezuela, the blame  for the migrant exodus of the last five years has been apportioned to the corruption and economic mishandling overseen by President Nicolás Maduro.

Ultimately, the economic crisis that has ripped apart Venezuela is a legacy of the socialist Bolivarian Revolution of 1999. The leader of the revolution and former president, Hugo Chávez, sought to implement a humanist form of socialism that put the needs of citizens before the state and  modern machinery. 

This new form of socialism was primarily designed to alleviate poverty rates, but also strengthened diplomatic ties with Cuba and other nations in the region who were inspired by this new ideological wave. Such diplomacy resulted in Venezuela receiving assistance in healthcare, education and agriculture, in exchange for Venezuelan oil at lower prices. 

Despite a successful reduction in poverty rates, Venezuela saw its economy go into freefall. Venezuela’s export revenue was heavily reliant on its oil industry. Hence, the decision to reduce oil prices, even during the 2008 financial crisis, contributed greatly to the increasing food and medicine shortages that have since gripped the country. 

Such economic crisis exacerbated under the leadership of Maduro who failed to secure  investment in sufficient infrastructure for Venezuela’s oil industry, meaning its economy had no way of surviving the 2014 global drop in oil prices. 

The result? Many regions in Venezuela, the country with the most oil reserves in the world, have been experiencing outages of gas and electricity for years because the commodity has become unaffordable for the majority. Public transport has mostly ceased and households, particularly outside of the capital, Caracus, have been cooking with firewood due to lack of access to gas. 

Blackouts and power cuts have become the norm, even in hospitals where doctors are forced to deliver babies and perform crucial operations with only torch lights. Medicine shortages have had colossal effects on the population. Patients are carried on the backs of bicycles because there are no ambulances running.

Food and health insecurity has intensified  so much that some people are forced to eat from the garbage. Some have even resorted to breaking into zoos to steal animals to eat. Some must walk kilometres to find clean drinking water, otherwise they draw contaminated water from local sewers and rivers. 

Trigger Warning 

Venezuelan
Via Wikimedia

Suicide rates have increased exponentially. In 2017, it was estimated that the state’s suicide rate was almost twice higher than  the average global rate recorded just a year earlier. This alarming trend is thought to have worsened given that the uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced opportunities for development and increased exposure to trauma and life-changing events.

Hence, Venezuela has become a nation of hyperinflation, food and health insecurity, shuttered schools and hospitals, and increasingly influential organised crime networks. To effectively demonstrate the extremity of hyperinflation, Bloomberg found that the price of a cup of coffee in Venezuela’s capital, Caracus, increased by 9,900% within a year from January 2019 to 2020. 

2015 saw an initial influx of Venezuelan mass migration and a second influx corresponded with Maduro’s re-election for another six-year term in 2018. Economic sanctions that were subsequently imposed by the US in 2019 to encourage Maduro to resign. 

The pressure on Maduro to resign also intensified internally due to  Juan Guaidó, both the leader of the opposition and of the National Assembly, who declared himself the acting people’s president of Venezuela in January 2019. But the  political deadlock between the two has only served to tighten Maduro’s control over the country due to the impressively loyal support from the armed forces. The Venezuelan armed forces have resorted to violent repression of anti-Maduro protests and student demonstrations.

Venezuelans are basically being forced to leave their home country for survival due to the deteriorating levels of economic and political stability. The majority make it to neighbouring Colombia, either to re-settle there or pass through enroute to  other countries in the region such as Peru and Ecuador. 

Colombia was experiencing its own challenges due to its prolonged civil war which ended with a historic peace treaty in 2016 and created thousands of  internally displaced migrants who built settlements on the outskirts of the country. The normalisation of  temporary rapidly-constructed infrastructure and familiar experience of catering for displaced peoples have aided the resettlement and integration of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia’s border municipalities. 

Colombia’s initial open-arms approach to immigration policy was another reason why  the country became such an attractive destination for vulnerable migrants from across the border. With the majority of Venezuelan migrants being young, able-bodied and educated to at least secondary level, the Colombian state focused on labour integration to boost productivity and economic gain. Such integration was encouraged via various short-term work permits, most notably a Special Stay Permit (PEP), which allows migrants to regularise their status for up to two years and thereby enjoy greater employment opportunities and free health care services. 

But the rate of migration has increased significantly. The number of Venezuelans entering Colombia doubled within just six months in 2018, and has continued at a high rate since. In addition, this rate is expected to increase since 70% of recent arrivals have left relatives back home, suggesting that future family reunification efforts could mean more people crossing the border.

To make matters worse, both Peru and Ecuador have restricted entry for Venezuelans, leaving  Colombia to bear the brunt of this migrant crisis almost entirely independently. This substantially increased rate of migration inflow has become too much to cope with for Colombia, especially when facing their own developmental challenges. 

Colombia discontinued PEP applications for those who had entered the country after November, 2019. Although this transition to a more restrictive migration policy was designed to limit the number of migrants entering the country, the move has only increased the number of migrants without documentation, who, as a result,  are denied  opportunities for employment and basic resources like food and medicine. 

Irregular migrants are forced to find work in Colombia’s informal economy to make a living, whether it be selling food on public transport or washing cars at traffic lights, or even joining armed groups or becoming vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the desperation of many Venezuelans, especially those without documentation in Colombia. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has meant some migrants have even returned to Venezuela despite the dangers. The Colombian state included its Venezuelan migrant population in its six-point action plan providing access to free healthcare services and special protection equipment for the most vulnerable in response to the pandemic. 

Thus, Colombia’s humanitarian response, although commendable, ultimately needs more assistance. Both international recognition of the situation in Venezuela, and aid for Colombia in dealing with this migrant crisis, have on the whole been underwhelming. As if Venezuelans were not already economically, socially and politically vulnerable, the pandemic has exacerbated such insecurities immeasurably. But the worst part is that no one seems to be talking about. Media coverage on the issue has been disappointing. Until Venezuelan people, and Colombia, are given the recognition they deserve, the absent eagerness of public bodies and international organisations will unfortunately persist.

Image via Wikimedia

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