Colombia conducts census of Venezuelan refugees as crisis deepens

Jhonathon Brizuela in a household of Venezuelan refugees in Barrio Camilo Daza, Colombia. Photo by: © UNHCR / Paul Smith

WASHINGTON — Colombia is undertaking a campaign to count the number of Venezuelan migrants who have fled their country’s ongoing political and economic crisis to determine who has crossed the border and what services they need, so it can best respond to displaced populations arriving in its eastern departments.

Felipe Muñoz, who has been tasked by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with managing the government’s border response, said there is a need to formalize the services and aid his country is already providing to Venezuelans. Bogotá also wants to prepare for a likely increase in migration in the coming months as the situation next door continues to deteriorate.

“In two months, we hope to register all Venezuelans who have entered the country without documents in order to know their situations and to be able as a government to establish some modification or extension of humanitarian public policy that the Colombian government is already implementing,” said Muñoz via video at a Brookings Institution event held in Washington, D.C.

Exact numbers of people who have arrived are hard to come by and it is difficult to ascertain if people intend to stay in Colombia or move to another country in South America or the Caribbean.

The lack of accurate data influences the way the United States State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGOs can plan for and respond to the crisis, a problem the Colombian government hopes the census will help solve. According to Muñoz, there are 30,000 Venezuelan children in the Colombian public school system, and 25,000 in the child care system. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans have been provided free medical care by Colombia’s public health system.

The Colombian government also intends to set up a formal process for Colombians who had fled their own country during a decades-long civil war for Venezuela, but now seek to return home. This includes children that have a parent from each country but were born in Venezuela and do not have Colombian identity papers.

“They have the right to be Colombian,” Muñoz said.

While Colombians fled their civil war for a stable neighboring Venezuela for decades, that number of migrants does not compare to the pace at which such a large number of people are now fleeing a crumbling Venezuela. According to Matthew Reynolds of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Latin American has never seen a migrant crisis of such scale as the one currently caused by instability in Venezuela. He said the 1.5 million figure frequently cited by those counting the number of people who have fled Venezuela is a conservative estimate.

“Venezuela itself has generously hosted a large refugee population from the region and other parts of the world for decades and this generosity should be recognized and reciprocated.”

— Matthew Reynolds, regional representative at UNHCR

“Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation without documentation and unable to apply for asylum or another legal status because of bureaucratic obstacles, long waiting periods, high application fees,” Reynolds said. “Venezuela itself has generously hosted a large refugee population from the region and other parts of the world for decades and this generosity should be recognized and reciprocated.”

Colombia first recognized the need to have a more coordinated response to its border issues in 2015 when the Venezuelan government expelled 22,000 Colombians, Muñoz said. It took about six months for the government’s efforts to get the border situation under control. That infrastructure helped Colombia react in 2017, which saw new highs in the number of Venezuelan migrants arriving.

Karen Freeman, senior deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, said the Colombian government’s response so far has been impressive.

“I need to be very generous in my praise of the Colombian government for the role they’re playing as well as countries in the region who are absorbing the impact of the migration,” Freeman said.

Last month, USAID announced an immediate commitment of $2.5 million to aid Colombia’s response to the Venezuelan migrant crisis. The funds will provide emergency food and health assistance for arriving Venezuelans as well as the Colombian communities hosting them. On Friday, the U.S. government announced an additional nearly $16 million in aid, including a contribution to the UNHCR regional response and more money for host communities in Colombia and Brazil.

While Muñoz said his country recognizes its responsibility to provide and care for those migrants that cross into Colombia, the government needs more help from NGOs to better coordinate the response. It particularly needs assistance in managing the health system, to ensure there are no outbreaks of preventable diseases. Because access to medical services has deteriorated so intensely inside Venezuela, many migrants have not had basic care such as vaccines for several years.

“The Colombian government has been taking care of the situation and continues to do so. It is an issue of highest priority for the president, the foreign minister, and the government,” Muñoz said. “The government and state entities will continue to act with solidarity and generosity, but also with security and control.”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.