WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands more Venezuelans could soon have temporary legal status in Colombia, Felipe Muñoz, adviser to the Colombian president for the border, told Devex.
In the coming days, the Colombian government is set to announce a new labor permit that will allow Venezuelans who have a job offer to temporarily remain in the country, regardless of previous migratory status. The position does not need to be one of permanent employment to qualify.
“If you don’t have the same possibilities for people to move, then we as Colombia [are the] only destination that remains totally open.”— Felipe Muñoz, adviser to the president of Colombia for the Colombian-Venezuelan border
In the coming weeks, two additional categories of Special Stay Permits, known by the Spanish acronym PEP, will be rolled out: one that gives temporary status to any Venezuelan migrant who entered the country with a passport in the last year, even if they have overstayed their original visa; and a temporary student permit that will give legal status to Venezuelan children already attending Colombian schools.
While UNHCR estimates that 676,093 Venezuelans in Colombia already have legal status through other categories of PEP, Muñoz said that additional regularization is one of the primary strategies the country is using to respond to the influx of people overwhelming its social protection, health care, and education systems. He estimates between 350,000 and 400,000 Venezuelans could attain legal status via the three new categories.
“We are really aware that the conditions for some part of the people is more permanent than temporary,” Muñoz said. “This is an ethical mandate and we have to work together to solve the situation.”
Last year, Colombia granted citizenship to 24,000 Venezuelan children who were born in the country, giving them full access to health and education services.
Muñoz said more than 1.6 million Venezuelans are currently in Colombia with the intention of staying there permanently. Some 800,000 others are transiting through the country on their way to another destination, while 35,000 to 50,000 each day cross the Simon Bolivar International Bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia. Many of those crossing the bridge are considered pendular migrants, entering Colombia for access to things such as remittances or health care before then returning to Venezuela. This movement is legalized with a Border Mobility Card, which allows Venezuelans to spend seven days in the Colombian border area to obtain basic goods and services.
UNHCR is estimating there will be 2.4 million Venezuelans in Colombia by the end of 2020, along with 2 million pendular migrants from the country. According to the refugee agency, just under 50% of those in Colombia are currently regularized with a PEP.
More Venezuelans are staying in Colombia due to changing migration policies in the region. Harsher visa requirements in Peru and Ecuador — with the latter now charging $50 for an entry visa — mean that people who would have moved on to other countries are now finding Colombia the most attractive option.
“They have created a very complex problem not only for Colombia on the Venezuelan border and all around the country, but also in the south border in the city of Ipiales,” Muñoz said. “The magnitude is continuous, is growing. There are big numbers, but also the more sensible difference is if you don’t have the same possibilities for people to move, then we as Colombia [are the] only destination that remains totally open.”
Muñoz said the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque remains committed to keeping the country’s borders open to those fleeing Venezuela.
Venezuelans are arriving in Colombia in increasingly more desperate conditions as time goes on, according to Muñoz. More women and children are crossing the border, including those who need health care and access to education. Many pregnant women cross for prenatal services or to give birth in Colombia, which requires expensive care, he said.
As migration numbers climb, a major challenge to meeting this need continues to be funding, Muñoz said. While the U.S. has been a major donor supporting Colombia’s response, European countries have been less engaged in the crisis. The U.N.’s 2020 Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan for Venezuela calls for $1.35 billion, $739.2 million of which would go to Colombia.
“This is almost double the money that we asked for in 2018. This is recognition from the United Nations that the crisis is getting worse in terms of magnitude and the conditions,” Muñoz said. “We need more involvement of the European Union and other countries in the United Nations and the Middle East.”
The plan identifies the health sector as the most in need, with 1.43 million people needing care costing an estimated $192.19 million altogether. The food security and nutrition sectors have the next highest need, requiring $167.93 million to aid 1.12 million people.
Muñoz said Colombia is working with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration to hold a donor conference in the coming months to catalyze more funds for the response to the Venezuela crisis.