From Venezuela to Colombia: Opportunities and challenges for migrants

By Pranava Pakala

Latin America is in a major political, economic and social turmoil. More precisely, Venezuela is facing the tumult. As of January 2018, more than half a million Venezuelans have taken refuge in neighbouring Colombia to escape a crippling economy. Caracas is facing acute food shortage which has caused its people to go elsewhere. Bogota has opened its arms to an ever-increasing number of refugees. Migracion Colombia, the official Colombian immigration authority has said that 550,000 Venezuelans have entered Colombia this year, an estimated 62% increase than last year. This is a lot of pressure on a small country like Colombia, which was itself recovering from instability. The influx of refugees is putting a strain on communities in Colombia, which have faced more than five decades of armed conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups, the armed forces and right-wing paramilitaries.

How did it all start?

Migration has always existed between Colombia and Venezuela. To be more precise, the former has traditionally flocked to the latter.  During the 1980s, when the oil drilling industry was booming in Venezuela, Colombians went there in search of better opportunities but today, they are returning. The tables have finally turned! Colombians are returning to their homeland as it is seemingly the most stable country in the region as of now.

The government’s reaction

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said that the government has borne the cost of its “policy of openness and solidarity” up till now. “We have offered emergency medical care and school for all Venezuelans,” he said. However, he warned that Colombia “has limitations if these migratory processes escalate.” Colombia has vociferously criticised President Nicolas Maduro for his elitist and dictatorial policies. Many blame him for the current state of the nation. The Colombian government has been very forthcoming and welcoming of Venezuelans and have even issued them “border mobility cards”. These cards basically allow a person to travel across the border between Colombia and Venezuela without any restrictions. So far, 700, 000 people have applied for this scheme. For many, Colombia is a transit point.

While many want to restart their lives in Bogota, others want to migrate to North America through Colombia, away from the uncertainty. The Colombian government obviously fears the mass influx too. Some officials fear that Venezuela might seal the borders or the armed militants might not let Venezuelans return to their country. Some Colombian officials have even visited Turkey to research about how it was coping with Syrian refugees to tackle the problems back home.

Existence of a porous border

One can spot many Venezuelan traders selling their produce in Colombia. This has been possible only because of the porous border. Many Venezuelans have thronged to Colombia in search of work. However, they complain that Colombians have been reticent so far. They feel that they look at them with suspicion. Camila Esguerra Muelle, a researcher at the Universidad de los Andes explains that the cold reception of Colombians can be attributed to the historically constructed xenophobic attitudes towards Venezuelans. She believes that European colonisation forced racism into many aspects of life—from scientific discourse to social norms—and says that this colonial hangover still influences people’s mindset.

Many churches and parishes provide shelter to these homeless refugees. They feed them and provide them with a roof over their head but the pressure on them is increasing too. At a shelter run by the Scalabrini International Migration Network in the centre of Cúcuta, the burgeoning scale of the problem is evident. Between January and June, 650 people came through its doors. In August alone, there were 850 people. The people who run these shelters acknowledge the massiveness of the situation and believe that more should be done to help these displaced people.

Need of a permanent solution

Colombia itself has many internal problems to effectively channelise their energies towards helping their neighbours. The country is in a volatile post-conflict period and is facing economic challenges, not least due to the collapse of oil prices in 2014-2016. Migration is a major issue and one which has links with economics, health, trade, education, and employment. President Santos is clearly conscious of this. Speaking in London last year, he said Colombia wants to be magnanimous, but the situation is creating a burden on the health and education systems of the country. The government’s initial response is obviously applaudable but they need to find ways to integrate these refugees into their population and make them contribute to the economy. Some lessons from European countries like Germany can be learnt here. One advantage that Latin American countries have over Europe is the fact that there isn’t much of a culture shock for refugees here as opposed to the diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds that the Europe-flocking refugees have.

Is this migration crisis nearing an end? Only time will tell.

Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt