Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will Legality Mean for Refugees From Venezuela?

Venezuelan migrants are pictured carrying their bags as they cross the border into Colombia. File Photo: Colombian Government.

Colombian President Iván Duque announced this month that his government would grant legal status to nearly a million Venezuelan migrants living in his country. The temporary protected status will allow Venezuelans to live and work in Colombia for 10 years, as well as give them access to government services. How significant is the offering of legal status for Venezuelans in Colombia? Has the initiative drawn criticism in Colombia, and is an increase in Venezuelan migration expected as a result of the announcement? To what extent are other countries in the hemisphere, including the United States, likely to implement similar measures for Venezuelan migrants and refugees?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, president of the Inter-American Development Bank: “We applaud Colombia’s generous move to offer temporary protective status to 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants. This is a very important step in the region’s approach to receiving migrants. So far, the region has opened its doors to many of the more than 5.4 million people who have fled Venezuela over the past four years. Colombia’s decision showcases how many of the countries in the region are facing this growing crisis. For example, Peru also began a process to formalize migrants. Colombia’s move is not just the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective. It also makes economic sense. We know that once migrants are integrated into host communities and brought into the formal economy, they become taxpaying members of society, benefiting everyone. Estimates from the International Monetary Fund and others indicate that Venezuelan migrants could help boost GDP by between 0.22 percent and 0.28 percent in Colombia but also in Chile and Ecuador. The IDB supports some of these processes and will continue to do so as part of our migration agenda. In fact, we have operations in Colombia, Ecuador, Belize and Costa Rica, and we are pursuing projects in Chile, Panama and Uruguay. In addition, we are discussing options with Peru, Guyana and others. We stand ready to support other countries if they choose to follow in Colombia’s footsteps. To date, we have invested more than $80 million of our own resources and donor funds to help governments with migration.”

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of American States: “The measure is historic and unprecedented, not just for Colombia but for the region. It is probably the strongest humanitarian gesture ever seen amid the prolonged Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis, the largest displacement crisis in the history of the Americas. It is significant both for Colombia and for Venezuelans there. Colombia will start the process of granting TPS by putting together a registry of Venezuelan migrants, which will allow authorities to know who is in the country and to protect at least 60 percent of Venezuelans who were living in the shadows. These are people who could be using their talents and will formally contribute with taxes. For Venezuelan migrants, it means having access to a regular stay document, health, education, a decent job and, for some, their only form of identification, considering the ID and passport crisis in Venezuela. The measure sends the message that millions of Venezuelans cannot return to their country of origin, albeit temporarily, because the country cannot give them protection. It is a sad message, but one that can hopefully reactivate and finalize a permanent solution for Venezuela’s transition to democracy. The measure is valiant, as there are always political and monetary costs with massive migratory protection measures. Some criticisms are already coming to the fore, including erroneous arguments that Venezuelans will be voting in Colombia’s next elections. This makes it all the more heroic for Duque and the team that drafted and moved the measure forward. Pragmatically, it may also mean that the international community, and especially financial institutions, will finally align with Colombia to provide for both the Venezuelan migrant population and the needs of Colombians. Should the international community step up in support, it may be an incentive for other countries to adopt the model. At least in the United States, the expectation is that the Biden administration will approve a similar measure within the first 100 days, as promised in his government plan. With 70 days or so left to go for this deadline, let’s hope the measure is approved, and that other Latin American countries follow.”

Andrés Martínez-Fernández, senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute: “Colombia’s recent decision to grant legal status to one million Venezuelans continues the country’s outstanding humanitarian response to its neighbors’ plight. In many ways, the decision is logical, as Colombia was already bearing most of the costs associated with its Venezuelan migrant population. Furthermore, granting legal status may reduce some of those costs by, for example, marginally increasing the formal employment of migrants and reducing their reliance on emergency health care services. However, denying the existence of costs and risks associated with this move means denying due credit to the Colombian people and downplaying the urgent need for increased international support. Granting migrants broader access to Colombia’s health and educational services can increase short-term costs and stresses on already strained government services and finances. Another potential effect of the announcement is to increase the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia by encouraging additional migration or disincentivizing the outmigration of Venezuelans in Colombia to other countries. Venezuela’s crisis is the central cause of the mass exodus from that country; however, push and pull factors are at play in migration decisions. Moreover, polling shows that access to employment opportunities and specialized migrant services are key reasons that Venezuelans choose Colombia over other countries. Finally, the potential for political instability should not be ignored, considering rising public frustrations over the impact of Venezuelan migration on labor competition and public services at such a precarious moment. Colombia will undoubtedly benefit from integrating Venezuelan migrants into its society and economy, particularly in the long term. However, these more immediate challenges and risks should not be overlooked. The Colombian government’s latest announcement must also serve as a signal to the international community of the urgent need for funding for the response to the Venezuelan migration crisis.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director at RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Colombians responded with generosity and openness and welcomed more than one million Venezuelan refugees—all while President Maduro obligated Colombians who resided legally in Venezuela to leave while Venezuela’s police and military appropriated their businesses, razed their homes and destroyed their familial and social ties. Since around February 2020, Colombia, the rest of Latin America and the United States have buckled under the imperatives of Covid-19. Colombia’s unemployment will rise to more than four million by April 30. About 60 percent of the country’s small businesses have failed since March 2020. Informality, illegality and criminality have increased by 58 percent during Covid-19. In granting temporary protected status to Venezuelans, Duque aims to: 1.) prevent Venezuelans from being exploited by unscrupulous Colombians who pay them a pittance rather than the minimum salary Colombians earn by law, 2.) stop Venezuelans from joining, as a last resort to survive, the criminal gangs that proliferate in Colombia and 3.) ensure Venezuelans have the public benefits Colombians enjoy, albeit with diminishing effectiveness and efficiency. Some Colombians oppose Duque’s move for the same reasons other Latin American countries are unlikely to follow Duque’s example: each country has enough unemployment, pain, suffering, misery and sociopolitical upheaval to add ‘Venezuelans’ to their current woes. Given today’s racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, the Biden administration does not have the legislative support necessary to amend its policies toward Venezuelans or any other immigrant group, despite efforts to the contrary. The pain and suffering of Venezuelan refugees, under protected status or not, will persist until they have a viable country to return to, which will take one generation, at least, after Maduro departs in one form or another.”

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