Impending Humanitarian Crisis in Columbia

Over 4,000 Venezuelan migrants enter Colombia every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees promises to address the monumental challenge to their humanitarian needs.

Background

Venezuela is undergoing one of the worst migration crises in Latin America's history. Nicolás Maduro’s economy is in shambles. Hyperinflation, violence, power cuts and food and medicine shortages have driven millions of Venezuelans out of the country. They have sought refuge in Spain, the United States, and in the Latin American countries surrounding them, with the majority of asylum seekers flooding Colombia. 

Analysis

On a visit to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said the UNHCR is committed to intensifying aid to the refugees.

Nearly two million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015, fleeing the current political and socio-economic situation that has caused insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine and essential services, and severe loss of income. About one million are now in Colombia, where the government is seeking to ensure they can work legally and access social services, by issuing a special permit for Venezuelan migrants.

Nearly 400,000 Venezuelans have obtained permits to legally work and access social services in the country, according to the Colombian government. At least 800,000 have been temporarily normalised. However, not all have legal status, and as HCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi noted, Venezuelans without access to a legal status are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and discrimination. 

The UN agency chiefs stressed their concern for those most in peril, including adolescent boys and girls, women, people trying to reunite with their families, and unaccompanied and separated children who are unlikely to be able to meet documentation requirements and are therefore more at risk of facing exploitation, trafficking and violence.

National and local authorities are working with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and other entities in the area to better address the most basic and immediate needs of those arriving. During his trip, Grandi inaugurated a medical centre in Cucuta with the capacity to serve 320 people daily. The centre, which will also offer protection to minors, was built with the support of the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The HCR has been impressed by the government of Colombia ’s efforts to document, feed, shelter and care for thousands of Venezuelans arriving every day, and has expressed the need for more international support for the extraordinary solidarity shown by Colombia. Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo has also previously called for an international response. “We have made important efforts lately and they are going to continue but the extent of the crisis is such that we do not have sufficient capacity to respond to the migrant flow without support,” Trujillo said in a statement.

Neighbouring countries have hosted many Venezuelan asylum seekers over past months and years, but recent developments have been concerning. Ecuador and Peru have imposed new passport and border entry requirements and Peru has made changes to temporary stay permits for Venezuelans.

Counterpoint

The President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, whose government is growing increasingly authoritarian, refused to admit to the migratory crisis at the UN General Assembly. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez has said her government complained to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that "individual officials" have been portraying "a normal migratory flow as a humanitarian crisis to justify an intervention.”

Assessment

Our assessment is that while it is commendable that the government of Columbia has made tremendous efforts to integrate asylum seekers, one must bear in mind that it is a country still recovering from gang violence, drug trafficking and extreme poverty. The lives of Colombians have improved over the past few years; those advances will be hard to sustain if the inflow of migrants continues unabated.

We feel that as the European Migration Crisis helped some politicians to combine populism with anti-immigrant nativism and authoritarianism, the danger of refugee crisis could make Colombia susceptible to demagoguery.

We believe it is essential for international organisations to create a multilateral emergency fund, and to assign a high-level United Nations official to coordinate the actions of Latin American countries, in order to lighten the burden carried by Colombia, and further their remarkable efforts.

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