Colombia preparing for prolonged response to Venezuela crisis

People cross the Colombian-Venezuelan border over the partially opened Simon Bolivar international bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela. Photo by: REUTERS / Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

WASHINGTON — Colombia’s border czar said his country must have a development response to the influx of Venezuelans it is hosting, an acknowledgment that a humanitarian response alone is not sufficient to serve the 1.4 million Venezuelans currently there who will not be able to return home any time soon.

Felipe Muñoz, adviser to the president for the Colombian-Venezuelan border, said at an event in Washington on Friday that 70% of Venezuelans in Colombia will stay a minimum of 2 to 3 years, and migration has been included in the government’s national development plan.

“This is not only a migratory process,” Muñoz said. “This is a development challenge and if you understand this, you can create a more comprehensive response and institutional process.”

Muñoz was charged by former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón — a mandate that has continued under current President Iván Duque Márquez — with managing the border response to the economic and social collapse of neighboring Venezuela that has driven 4 million citizens of that country to leave.

His work is now not only concentrated on the border, in places such as Cúcuta where thousands of Venezuelans enter Colombia every day, but throughout the country. Many Venezuelans are traveling by foot to join family or friends in cities such as Bogotà, or continue on into Ecuador, Peru, and beyond, challenging the entire region with a migration crisis never before seen on the continent.

Just over 50% of Venezuelans in the country have regular migratory status, according to Muñoz, with 80% of those holding a special temporary permit known as PEP. The other 47% have migrated irregularly.

Muñoz is most concerned about meeting Venezuelans’ health care needs, he said, as many are leaving the country due to inadequate medical care from hospitals lacking basic medicines and supplies. This population includes pregnant women, who cross into Colombia for prenatal care and to give birth to their babies — an average of 625 births are recorded each month, according to Colombian government data. Some of these children, at risk of being stateless, were recently granted Colombian citizenship, and Muñoz said his government will do the same for babies born to Venezuelan mothers inside their territory going forward.

“As the coordinator for the response, if you give me $100, I’m going to put almost $68, $70 of this $100 in health,” Muñoz said. Previously eradicated diseases have resurfaced, with 330 recorded cases of measles and 8 recorded cases of diptheria, he added. 

Education also remains a large challenge, as Colombia struggles to get Venezuelan children into schools in border areas where capacity is already strained. Muñoz said that while almost 200,000 Venezuelan children have been enrolled in public schools, Colombia needs to explore more flexible solutions to ensuring children have access to education.

Because both health and education are very decentralized in Colombia, the national government must coordinate its response with mayors and governors who provide those social services, Muñoz said. The national government created 30 local working groups to ensure local authorities are engaged — a process that will be complicated this fall as Colombia holds local elections and these positions will turn over.

This doesn’t mean other national government agencies don’t need to be involved, Muñoz said.

“We are working with the minister of education trying to create a specific program for the schools on how we can integrate kids,” Muñoz said, which will be aimed at preventing rising xenophobia against Venezuelans and promoting integration.

The country is also working to increase financial inclusion among Venezuelans who have migrated, engaging the private sector to incentivize hiring them, and exploring how to incorporate them into the agricultural sector cultivating major Colombian exports including coffee, bananas, and flowers.

Despite these pressures, Colombia continues to view support for Venezuelans as a moral imperative, Muñoz said. This is in part due to gratitude felt for the Colombians taken in by Venezuela during Colombia’s decades-long civil war, with the government saying it will keep the border open and not impose visa restrictions for entry as some other countries have.

Duque, speaking at a separate event in Washington Friday, reiterated his call for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to leave office as he reaffirmed his commitment to helping those migrating, whom he called his “brothers and sisters.”

“The regime has brutalized the people in a way that is only comparable with what we saw with Slobodan Milošević more than 20 years ago. It is a moral duty to denounce and do whatever is needed so the dictatorship comes to an end,” Duque said. “This is not a geopolitical debate. This is not a dispute between world powers. This is common sense. This is the defense of the values and principles that we share and that have been the cornerstone of our societies, so that’s why we weed to do everything that is needed.”

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.