Source: Schneyder Mendoza, Agence France-Presse / Getty Images
Colombia’s landmark Estatuto de Protección Temporal (Temporary Protected Status, or TPS) for Venezuelan migrants and refugees—announced by Iván Duque’s government earlier this year—has brought relief to many Venezuelans in Colombia who require legal status to find jobs, secure access to the public health system, and sign up for a bank account, among other benefits. While Colombia could do more to ensure the full social and economic integration of this migrant population, the government is hamstrung by its own fiscal constraints, high unemployment, and political polarization. The international community must heed this urgent call to action before it is too late.
Colombia continues to face the social and economic repercussions of the Venezuelan crisis—mainly, due to the hundreds of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who cross the porous Colombia-Venezuela border every day. These Venezuelans arrive in Colombian border communities that lack basic infrastructure and suffer under the influence of non-state armed groups, the result of the historic absence of the state in such regions of the country. The majority of Venezuelans that are able to find work end up in the informal sector, working on illegal coca fields or mines near the border, as day laborers in agriculture and construction throughout rural Colombia, and in cities as subcontract workers, street vendors, and performers (among others). They join the more than 50 percent of Colombians who already rely on informal work.
As such, Venezuelans are vulnerable to labor abuse and exploitation in all sectors of the economy and in all regions of the country, with the added detrimental dimension of extreme gender disparities in the labor market. Such abuse and exploitation is only made worse by the prevalence of xenophobia, sexual assault, gender-based violence, and human trafficking that have become largely normalized due to Colombia’s weak judicial system—which is especially untrustworthy for economically vulnerable migrants in need of social protections.
Earlier this year, Colombia announced an unprecedented “open-door” policy, granting temporary legal status to more than one million Venezuelans in the hopes of improving the living conditions and general wellbeing of those who have fled Venezuela seeking a better quality of life. It is fair to say that no developed country has offered such generous benefits and standards to migrants; Colombia, therefore, has set a high standard for other countries—especially its South American neighbors—to better their own treatment of Venezuelan migrants.
To ensure that recipients of temporary protected status can actually access its promised benefits—related to employment, healthcare, and education—further collaboration between the national government, local authorities, the private sector, and civil society are needed. As of right now, it appears that private and public entities will be able to arbitrarily reject the Permiso por Protección Temporal (PPT) document as an official form of legal identification. Whenever this rejection occurs, migrants will be left facing the same obstacles as they would be forced to confront without the document. Without guaranteed coordination among private and public entities, including employers, the existing legal protected status will be incapable of facilitating the comprehensive social and economic integration of migrants. In this regard, education is necessary for prospective employers and state entities to understand the document’s legitimacy and begin to more widely accept it.
Additionally, Colombia has a significant problem with high rates of labor participation in the informal economy. This is an issue that has significantly worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, as surging unemployment has directed more Colombian workers toward the informal sector. This further decreases the likelihood that even Venezuelan migrants with legal status will be able to find employment in the formal sector. Furthermore, the Colombian government must work to reduce financial and institutional barriers within the Ministry of Education to allow educated Venezuelans to validate their degrees and certificates in Colombia, making it easier for Venezuelan professionals to continue their careers. This process is likely to increase the risk of fraud and encourage the falsification of educational certifications; nonetheless, the Colombian economy can benefit from the vast talent pool of Venezuelan professionals who have migrated to Colombia and currently rely on informal work when they could be more productive in other sectors of the economy. The Colombian government should also reduce other bureaucratic barriers so that private companies can efficiently hire Venezuelans in possession of the PPT document. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, should collaborate with the government to widely publicize information on workers’ rights, in order to minimize exploitation and abuse of Venezuelan migrants in the workplace.
Thus far, international aid has been insufficient to address the greatest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that by the end of 2021, Venezuelan migrants and refugees around the world will number 6.2 million (higher than the reported number of refugees who have fled Syria since the start of that country’s civil war in 2011). The Brookings Institution has argued that the Venezuelan exodus represents the most underfunded refugee crisis in modern history: while per capita aid for each Syrian refugee has been calculated at USD $3,150, and for each South Sudanese refugee at USD $1,390, each Venezuelan refugee has thus far only been allocated USD $265. Last June, Canada, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hosted the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. Donors pledged USD $1.5 billion in funding destined to support humanitarian relief in Venezuela and integration initiatives for refugees and migrants in host countries. While such pledges are certainly welcome, it is unlikely that such funds will arrive soon enough to address the urgent needs of the millions of Venezuelan migrants already in Colombia and those of their hosts, whose own huge unmet needs have been exacerbated by the pressures of Venezuelan migration.
Among longer-term challenges will be the integration of poor and low-skilled Venezuelans into the formal economy. For such integration to be feasible sooner rather than later, the Colombian government and international donors must commit to funding and completing development projects, particularly along the Colombia-Venezuela border and in rural areas, that address the existing high levels of poverty and inequality. Not coincidentally, these regions are where a significant number of Venezuelans have also settled, either because of the abundance of informal job opportunities, the high opportunity costs of traveling elsewhere in the country, and/or the lower costs of living compared to urban areas. Unfortunately, Colombia’s border departments and rural areas throughout the country continue to lack basic infrastructure, including access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, and safe and affordable housing. Through the Development Plans with a Territorial Approach (PDET) provisions of the 2016 peace agreement, the Colombian government has begun to implement necessary infrastructure projects that have the potential to improve the quality of life for communities in those areas of the country most affected by decades of armed conflict. There are 23 municipalities throughout the border departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander, and Arauca that have already been recipients of this peace process-related funding—to the benefit not only of Colombians, but also to the estimated 475,000 Venezuelans that reside in these departments. Such success stories can aid in the elimination of perceptions that aid earmarked for Venezuelans creates inequality in host communities.
Challenges aside, the granting of temporary legal status to a majority of Venezuelans currently in Colombia should be recognized as the historic step it is; furthermore, it serves as an implicit counterpoint to other countries in the region—such as Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile—that are actively pursuing anti-migrant policies designed to exclude and expel Venezuelan migrants from within their borders. Colombia’s intervention also sets an example to Mexico, the United States, and many countries in Europe, where immigration and immigrants are hot button political issues. As has been argued before, xenophobia toward Venezuelans in Colombia is a ticking time bomb, and with elections on the horizon, the issue is prone to politicization and to being seized upon by opportunistic populists looking for an easy scapegoat.
The new Colombian president and government elected in 2022 will have the opportunity to focus on structural reforms and strengthening state institutions that can minimize violence near the border; reduce poverty levels; and, in collaboration with the private sector, increase job opportunities for Venezuelan migrants in agriculture, healthcare, and various service sectors. However, the next Colombian government must continue to address growing risks to Venezuelans and Colombians in border areas that are likely to erode governance and security, including xenophobia and basic unmet needs in healthcare, education, and nutrition. Even before next year’s presidential election, though, there is still enough time to build a political consensus around the TPS for Venezuelans that continues to implement key provisions of the peace accord, creates jobs, and strengthens state institutions in and around border areas. In order to facilitate the development of such a consensus, however, international donors including Canada, the U.S., and the European Union must accelerate the disbursement of pledged funds and even contribute more, as Colombia’s current fiscal constraints will not allow it to more generously invest in this population.
This article is part of a larger forthcoming report to be published by Colombia Risk Analysis. Follow them on Twitter @ColombiaRisk to receive the report when it is published.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.
Ivonne Marmolejo is a Research Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and a current graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @imandue.
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.