The Colombian Response to the Venezuelan Migration Crisis: A Dialogue with Colombia’s Migration Czar

Tamar Ziff / Inter-American Dialogue

On September 27, 2019 the Migration Policy Institute, together with the Inter-American Dialogue, hosted the event “The Colombian Response to the Venezuelan Migration Crisis: A Dialogue with Colombia’s Migration Czar” featuring panelists Felipe Muñoz, advisor to the President on the Colombian-Venezuelan border; Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute; Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, associate director of the International Program at the Migration Policy Institute; and Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

The event was an opportunity for Muñoz to highlight the Colombian government’s humanitarian response to the more than one million Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia. The panelists all agreed that the Colombian government’s response was laudable and an admirable demonstration of solidarity. However, many challenges remain, including the social, political and financial sustainability of the Colombian government’s response, particularly in a context of continuing migration out of Venezuela.

Muñoz began by providing some numbers that give an understanding of the scale of the crisis. The total number of Venezuelan migrants has now reached 4.2 million. Eight out of eight ten migrants have fled to Latin American countries. Colombia has received 33 percent of all migrants, more than any other country. 45,000 people enter Colombia each day in need of social services. There are now ten times the number of foreigners in Colombia compared to pre-crisis levels. Total Venezuelan migration could surpass five million by the end of the year, especially in light of the fact that the share of Venezuelans considering leaving the country has risen from 31 percent to 46 percent over the past year. Banulescu-Bogdan offered a striking comparison between the Venezuelan migration crisis and the world’s other great refugee crisis in Syria. She shared that in the next year or two, the number of Venezuelan migrants could exceed the total outflows from Syria.

Despite the comparable scale, international aid for Venezuelan migrants is only a small fraction of that given to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Camilleri added that the United Nation’s humanitarian response plan, though criticized for not being ambitious enough, is only 30 percent funded. Muñoz remarked that Colombia has received $294 million from international donors while spending 0.5 percent of its own GDP on its response. This money is necessary to address the pressing needs of migrants. Muñoz shared that the Colombian government is working with schools to integrate 200,000 migrant children. The health of Venezuelans entering Colombia is also an issue, since some bring with them diseases, such as measles and diphtheria, which were previously eradicated in Colombia. Moreover, 60 percent of Venezuelan pregnant women are found in urgent medical condition. In addition to the health and education of the migrants, many are dependent on provisioned food and shelter.

All the panelists discussed the importance of integration to the social and political sustainability of the Colombian government’s response. Once migrants’ basic necessities are met, they must be provided with opportunities for work and a pathway to legalizing their residency. Muñoz shared that the Colombian government has already granted permanent residency, through the Special Residency Permit (Permiso Especial de Permanencia, or PEP) program, to half a million Venezuelans and plans to continue doing so. Banulescu-Bogdan contrasted the Colombian government’s policies with those of Turkey, which has not allowed Syrian refugees to obtain permanent status. She also pointed out that changes in legal status are not enough. She suggested incentives for employers and workers. Muñoz noted that the government has begun to offer lower tax rates in border zones so that businesses have incentives to hire.

Despite these positive measures, Camilleri expressed his worry that the solidarity of Latin American countries may be beginning to fray. Several neighbors of Colombia have recently imposed visa requirements on Venezuelan migrants, making their entry more difficult and increasing the burden on Colombia to care for and integrate them. Polling data shows that opposition to Venezuelan immigration is increasing in Colombia, but Muñoz signaled that the government is going to maintain its policies.

During his presentation Muñoz showed the audience pictures from Colombia, of the camps where migrants are living in spartan conditions and of the roads in border regions where migrants walk four or five-wide in endless columns in search of a better life. He said that some migrants have walked more than 900 miles to reach their final destination. He used this example to argue that this is survival migration, meaning that people will cross borders no matter what. So if you cut off legal pathways, it pushes them into illegal pathways. In characterizing a photo of a mass of migrants making their way down a Colombian highway he remarked, “This is a biblical exodus.” 

Watch the full event recording here: