Donor support key to Colombia's new migrant policy, officials say

Venezuelans at a temporary camp in Arauquita, Colombia. Photo by: Colombian Ombudsman Office via Reuters

The success of Colombia’s recent move to regularize its large population of Venezuelan refugees and migrants will depend on support from international donors, United Nations and Colombian officials said Thursday.

Last month, Colombian President Iván Duque announced a new 10-year temporary protection status for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have crossed into Colombia through irregular routes. They are fleeing years-long political and economic collapse in their own country, where shortages of basic household goods and medical supplies have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

The new policy will allow Venezuelans to register with Colombia’s government to work legally and access public services such as education and health care, including COVID-19 vaccines.

Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the UN Refugee Agency and International Organization for Migration for Venezuela, called the temporary protection status a “courageous and fully inclusive” move that would set an example for countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, which has an estimated 4.6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Colombia has the most, with an estimated 1.8 million people.

“Colombia, like all hosting countries, requires more support from the international community to strengthen its inclusion capacities and implement … these types of game-changing initiatives,” Stein said at a virtual event Thursday.

“[The policy] is a true milestone in humanitarian response and migration governance and a commitment to development. Framed within the most urgent humanitarian efforts while fostering long-term integration, it is a bold and innovative decision that will transform the lives of almost 1 million Venezuelans who today find themselves in an irregular situation.”

“It is obviously a crisis that is underfunded. It’s a crisis that is not close to any solution.”

— Michael Koehler, deputy director general, DG ECHO

Stein said the next international donors’ conference for Venezuelans will play an important role in raising the visibility of challenges faced by the migrant and refugee population and by host countries. The event is scheduled to take place in June and will be hosted by Canada.

Michael Koehler, deputy director general at the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, said few countries are doing their share in the response to the mass exodus from Venezuela. The 2021 Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, or RMRP, appealed for $1.4 billion, but just $24 million has been received so far.

“It is obviously a crisis that is underfunded. It’s a crisis that is not close to any solution,” Koehler said.

He said that for many European donors, conflicts in Syria, Libya, and other locations at the “European doors” take financial precedence over something happening in the Western Hemisphere.

Adriana Mejía, Colombian vice minister for multilateral affairs, said that Colombia sees migration as an opportunity because many Venezuelan migrants are young and “eager to work” and that giving them access to legal employment will “propel our economic and social progress.” She noted the long-standing ties between the two countries that share a language, culture, and religion. For decades, it was Colombians who fled to Venezuela to escape ongoing conflict.

But Mejía stressed the need for solidarity from the international community in realizing the integration of Venezuelans into Colombia economically and socially. She said the RMRP and the accompanying NGO and U.N. coordination platform are the best ways to ensure that money is being spent on priority areas.

“Since the adoption of the TPS [temporary protected status], our message to the donors is: Please don’t be creative. Come back to the RMRP. The needs are established there. They are quantified. That is what we need the resources for,” Mejía said.

“Additional to that, we have identified two or three other priorities which will be annexed to the RMRP, which are very, very focused. We want to maintain a very strong focus on our priorities, and we want to invite the international community to also maintain that focus in order to not duplicate or disperse efforts.”

Although the border is officially closed, Stein said an estimated 2,000 Venezuelans cross into Colombia each day. While some intend to stay there, others continue walking to other destinations such as Peru, Ecuador, and even Chile and Argentina.

Money must be directed strategically to ensure that areas of Colombia hosting large numbers of Venezuelans have the resources to integrate refugees and migrants under the temporary protection status, Stein said.

“The demands of these statutes in the process of registration are monumental, administratively speaking,” Stein said. “There will be a need for equipping and … training local authorities to face up to this formidable challenge.”

Duque, speaking at a separate virtual event Thursday, referenced the relatively low amount that international donors have spent per Venezuelan migrant and refugee when compared with the Syrian crisis, for example. He urged donors to follow through on financial commitments for Colombia’s response.

“We definitely need to connect what has been pledged to the disbursements that are needed,” Duque said.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was 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.