Economic collapse, government repression, violence and U.S. sanctions are making life unbearable for ever more Venezuelans. Now, echoing anti-migrant rhetoric used worldwide, politicians and officials in neighboring countries have begun to portray Venezuelan migrants as a national security threat.
Approximately 3.5 million people have fled Venezuela for Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and other Latin American nations since late 2015, when Venezuela’s crisis began. Their continued arrival has overwhelmed towns and social service providers across the region.
Invoking security concerns, Ecuador on Aug. 26 began requiring Venezuelans seeking entry to present a clean criminal record in addition to a passport and a visa. All three of those documents are nearly impossible for ordinary people to get given Venezuela’s political upheaval. Chile and Peru passed similarly restrictive entry requirements earlier this year.
In Brazil, officials last year blamed Venezuelans for increased violence along the border. As a candidate in Chile’s 2018 presidential race, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera accused foreigners of “importing problems like delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.” And a prominent Peruvian mayoral candidate recently claimed Venezuelans were stealing local jobs.
In contrast, Colombia – which hosts 1.4 million migrants, 40% of the region’s displaced Venezuelans – has emerged as a leader in welcoming Venezuelans. The Colombian government has issued special permits allowing some 676,093 Venezuelans to work and benefit from government social services for up to two years. The capital is working with local governments to improve Venezueleans’ access to health care, education and jobs. And the administration recently granted citizenship to children born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents.
Thanks in part to Colombia’s welcoming response, the country has avoided the kind of xenophobic backlash seen elsewhere in the region.
But, as my field work in Colombia indicates, the hospitality at the Colombia-Venezuela border is fragile.
Solidarity and national interest
Colombia has its own serious domestic concerns to deal with.
The 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas that ended Colombia’s 52-year armed conflict is advancing slowly, with the government failing to deliver on some of its promises and dissident rebels recently calling for a return to the battlefield.
Nearly 6 million Colombians are still displaced internally from the war. And unemployment stands at over 10%.
In Colombia, I sometimes heard the country’s pro-migrant policies toward Venezuelans explained as a sort of neighborly solidarity, following from the two countries’ long shared history. During the final years of Colombia’s armed conflict, Venezuela hosted over 200,000 Colombian forced migrants.
But Colombia’s hospitality toward Venezuelan migrants is also pragmatic.
The government sees the potential economic gains of so many new workers. Colombia’s National Planning Department estimates Venezuelans could contribute up to a 0.5 percentage-point gain in the Colombian economy by 2021, even taking into account the costs of hosting newcomers.
And, as I learned from interviews with government officials, researchers and aid workers, the administration of Colombian president Ivan Duque also realizes that it cannot effectively seal its 1,381-mile border with Venezuela.
Much of this border is controlled by criminal organizations and the remaining guerrilla forces, such as the National Liberation Army. Armed groups like these profit tremendously from border closures. People and goods must then pass through their illicit routes – for a hefty fee.
Xenophobia becomes a security threat
A recent global study confirms that refugees are regularly the victims of such violence. And crime data from Colombia suggest that there is no statistical relationship between Venezuelan arrivals and crime rates.
Yet in several South American countries allegations of crime by an individual Venezuelan have provoked violent backlashes against the entire group.
After a local businessman was beaten and robbed in Brazil in 2018, a mob attacked an encampment of Venezuelans, prompting the Brazilian government to deploy soldiers. Over 1,000 migrants fled back to Venezuela. In Ecuador, the stabbing of a woman in January triggered a violent anti-Venezuelan riot.
Migration-related violence typically occurs when countries lack the capacity or will to respond to newcomers effectively, studies show.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, to promote public safety and migrant protections, countries that host refugees must legally recognize their rights and develop strategies to house, care for and integrate this vulnerable population. Then, these host governments must be able to follow through.
Without sufficient resources and planning, migration may overwhelm locals and spark resentment against migrants. Seizing on voter fear and exasperation, opportunistic politicians can stoke the kind of anti-migrant sentiment now flaring up in Latin America.
This may spell trouble ahead for Colombia.
A crisis of funding
In April, Colombia’s president announced a US$200 million plan to support border areas, including payments for local hospitals and incentives for businesses to hire migrants.
But the international humanitarian community leading the aid effort in Colombia has requested $315,467,200 more from donor countries to fund health, nutrition, education and other programming. By October, humanitarian organizations had received just 43% of that amount.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has described the effort to aid Venezuelans in Latin America as “one of the most underfunded humanitarian appeals in the world.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s crisis shows no signs of ending, and some Colombians are growing impatient. A Gallup poll found that approval for Colombia’s open arms policy toward Venezuelans dropped from 61% in February to 41% in June.
A few Colombian politicians are beginning to echo the language used to justify border restrictions in Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
“Venezuelans, yes, but not like this. Control migration,” declare billboards erected by a Colombian candidate running for local office in a border region.
His calls haven’t gotten much traction. A number of political parties have even signed a pact agreeing not to use xenophobic campaign messaging in the lead-up to Colombia’s Oct. 27 regional elections.
But without substantially more foreign assistance to manage the Venezuelan migrant crisis, Colombia’s arms may only stay open so long.
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