Colombia Makes History by Offering Protective Status to Displaced Venezuelans

In a joint announcement on February 8, Colombian president Iván Duque and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi announced that Colombia would offer temporary protective status to displaced Venezuelans, many of whom had been in the neighboring country without formal status for years. The policy has immediate humanitarian implications for Venezuelans in Colombia and for Colombian communities hosting their neighbors. It could also serve as an inspiration for countries across the region to provide much needed assistance and stability to displaced Venezuelans.

Q1: Why have Venezuelans fled, where did they go, and how many are currently in Colombia?

A1: Beginning in 2014, Venezuela experienced the rapid disintegration of an economy previously sustained by oil revenues. Political conflict accelerated after the 2018 national election, when incumbent Nicolás Maduro claimed to have won, after which National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the rightful president in January 2019. (The United States and several European nations subsequently recognized Guaidó, while China, Russia, and the Venezuelan military recognized Maduro.) The Venezuelan people were caught in a downward spiral. High unemployment, hyperinflation, rampant poverty, and fuel, natural gas, electricity, and clean water shortages led to an average of 25 demonstrations per day in September 2020 alone.

Today, hunger and malnutrition are widespread in Venezuela, with a pronounced toll on children. Gasoline scarcity prevents goods from getting to markets, and the broken-down food supply chain in Venezuela has worsened during a pandemic-driven even steeper economic decline. The elderly and disabled are particularly at risk of critical food insecurity. There are widespread shortages of basic supplies like soap, bleach, and personal protective equipment for healthcare staff. Frequent national blackouts often leave hospitals without electricity, and 78 percent of hospitals reported inconsistent water services in 2019. Years of shortages and decimated healthcare infrastructure had caused scarcity of medicine, and left the country unequipped to effectively respond to a pandemic. Compounding these problems is an ever-worsening Covid-19 pandemic; the lack of access to clean water sources has negatively impacted overall physical health and has made it difficult to adhere to specific hygiene measures needed to reduce viral spread.

These humanitarian and economic disasters—many of them man-made—have displaced millions of Venezuelans. Since 2015, approximately 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their homes in search of economic stability and personal security. Some went to neighboring Brazil and Colombia, while others fled to Peru, the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, and even as far as Spain. The mass movement of Venezuelans is considered one of the largest forced migrations and humanitarian crises in the world, second only to Syria in terms of the number of Venezuelans displaced.

The 2018 Quito Declaration on Human Mobility and Venezuelan Citizens in the Region affirmed the commitment of 11 Latin American nations to improving access to regular status, healthcare, and the labor market for Venezuelans. The declaration included an agreement to accept expired travel documents so Venezuelans could more easily migrate. However, the pandemic has provided an excuse for inaction; fewer than half of those who fled Venezuela since 2015 have permits to legally work and reside in host countries.

Approximately 1.7 million Venezuelans now live in Colombia alone, though this number is likely higher since many Venezuelans enter Colombia through informal border crossings known as trochas. Extortion, robbery, and sexual assault increased after official crossing points closed in March 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing more migrants to enter Colombia via informal routes. Estimates also suggest that nearly 1 million Venezuelan migrants had no legal status in Colombia before February 8, 2021. When Colombia locked down to limit viral spread, Venezuelans found themselves in increasingly dire situations. More than 100,000 returned to Venezuela to crowded, unsanitary quarantine camps or remained trapped on the Colombian side with ingress and egress tightly restricted. Though Venezuelans in Colombia may have access to better economic opportunities than they did in Venezuela, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment into coerced labor.

The number of vulnerable migrants in Colombia will likely grow. Ecuador, Peru, and Chile have placed more restrictions on Venezuelans attempting to enter after passing through Colombia to destinations farther south. Venezuelans in Colombia will require assistance with employment, housing, and integration for the immediate future. This displacement crisis is unfolding alongside a simmering border conflict involving several armed criminal groups, paramilitaries, and government forces, with civilians—Colombian and Venezuelan alike—caught in the crossfire and at times forcibly recruited.

Ultimately, the most urgent need is a dramatic increase in funding. In 2020, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) put out a $1.41 billion appeal for a response plan to refugees and migrants from Venezuela, and it remains less than half funded. Over several years of crisis, the international community has comparatively spent far less per capita on Venezuelan refugees than refugees affected by other conflicts. Almost as important is securing formal protected status for Venezuelans.

Q2: What decision was made on February 8 by the Colombian government?

A2: On Monday, February 8, 2021, President Iván Duque announced that the Colombian government has officially offered temporary protective status to undocumented Venezuelans living in Colombia. The objective of the statute is to give Venezuelans without formal status within Colombia the ability to register and have legal status in the country for a period of 10 years. According to a joint statement from the EU High-Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, this new protection status “should facilitate labour integration and access to basic social services.”

The temporary protection statute will also ensure that the Venezuelans who have been previously legalized will not have to regularly reapply for permissions for at least the next 10 years. President Duque mentioned there is a possibility for Venezuelan migrants to obtain a resident visa after this 10-year period.

This decision has been positively viewed as beneficial to both the Colombian government and for Venezuelans. It also enables Venezuelans to access formal employment and healthcare. And though there may be challenges in implementation, it allows the Colombian government to better track the numbers of Venezuelans entering the country from legal entry points, interpret the demographics of those entering, and examine which institutions the government can fund and strengthen to best suit the new influx of migrants.

Q3: Why is the decision important?

A3: For years, Venezuelans have faced oppression within their home country. Citizens have experienced prolonged violence, extreme poverty, and human rights violations, all exacerbated by Covid-19. Robust humanitarian efforts from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), along with local and international nongovernmental agencies, have provided support and high-level advocacy for Venezuelans across the region. The February 8 announcement should be seen as a victory for the joint efforts of these two UN agencies and for the myriad international partners who have been pushing for more formal status for Venezuelans.

Prior to being granted temporary protected status on February 8, few Venezuelans were able to legally reside in Colombia. Despite the best efforts of the international community, as of October 2, 2020, only 425 Venezuelans had been formally recognized as refugees.

Though largely procedural on its face, the extension of formal protection status to Venezuelans should be considered one of the most important humanitarian gestures in the region in recent memory. IOM Director General António Vitorino said that the “regularization of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia through the provision of a generous temporary protection status is a key to facilitating their socio-economic integration and access to the national health system and Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.” UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said that this “bold humanitarian gesture serves as an example for the region and the rest of the world. It is a life-changing gesture for the 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans who will now benefit from added protection, security, and stability while they are away from home.”

The decision should have near immediate humanitarian impact. Many Venezuelan migrants were forced to return home to Venezuela during the pandemic. The new temporary protective status will accommodate Venezuelans specifically during the duration of the pandemic and will guarantee access to the national healthcare system as well as the Covid-19 vaccination plan. In doing so, it could assist in mitigating the spread of the virus and in the recovery to come.

The decision could also have regional—or even global—impact, especially in signaling that individual governments can effectively provide durable support for the displaced and their host communities. Allowing Venezuelans to legally live and work in the country offers Colombian citizens and Venezuelan migrants medium to long-term political and economic stability. The Colombian government decided on this change despite domestic political obstacles; like most places around the world, Colombia is not immune to anti-migrant political factions and the whims of domestic public opinion. The Duque government’s actions—especially if proven successful in benefiting both Colombians and Venezuelans as is intended—will be a closely watched test case.

President Duque has called on international actors to support this decision and on regional partners to similarly reform migration policies. It remains to be seen how many will follow, but there is hope that others will follow in Colombia’s footsteps. Especially since often the first step on the road to reform is the hardest to take.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda. Hannah Davin is a research intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development. Molly Naylor-Komyatte is a research intern with the Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Hannah Davin

Molly Naylor-Komyatte