Decades ago, Venezuela was a haven. Fueled by an oil boom, it was one of four Latin American countries recognized by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income economy and a bastion of stability in a region plagued by authoritarianism and economic crises. Surrounded by a toxic mix of guerrilla warfare, drug violence, and economic stagnation, millions of Colombians saw the porous Venezuelan border as a means to a better life. Today, with the direction reversed, that same border is yet again a regional pressure point with grave human and economic repercussions. Colombian authorities estimate that roughly 1 million people born in Venezuela have emigrated to Colombia over the past 20 years. With numbers likely to increase in the coming months, policymakers in Bogota are running out of time to preemptively tackle a potential humanitarian crisis—one that could at least complicate Colombian stability and the ongoing implementation of the peace accords with the FARC rebels.
Since the turn of the century, intermittent crises have turned a once prosperous petro-state into an economy in ruin. Under Hugo Chávez and more aggressively under President Nicolás Maduro, the government has seized private enterprises with the aim of better sharing the country’s oil wealth. Economic mismanagement and falling oil prices, however, have culminated in an inflation rate that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts could top 1,640 percent by the end of this year.
To combat hyperinflation, the Maduro government has gone to unprecedented lengths to fix the prices of basic goods, which in turn has led to national food shortages, long lines, and pandemic malnourishment. According to a joint study by the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, and the Universidad Simon Bolivar, 9.6 million Venezuelans, approximately 32 percent of the country’s population, eat two times or fewer per day, with nearly 75 percent of respondents admitting to having unintentionally lost an average of 19 pounds over the past year. In today’s Venezuela, according to the study, nearly 82 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a stark increase from the 42 percent figure just three years ago.
The reality of recent cross-border movements has prompted widespread apprehension across the region about the risks of a protracted so-called “Bolivarian Diaspora,” but in no place are these concerns more well-founded than in Colombia, where a rocky peace process to end the world’s longest continuous war can hardly afford any more complications.
The 2,219-kilometer border between Venezuela and Colombia—which has long been chaotic—is experiencing unprecedented levels of activity. Colombia’s national immigration service recorded 8.3 million Venezuelan land crossings into Colombia in the first four months of this year. Of that wave, government entities only registered 7.9 million departures, leaving 400,000 Venezuelan immigrants who have either stayed in Colombia, legally or illegally, or continued on to another country. According to reports, early figures from this year show that the number of border crossings is on pace to nearly double the figures from last year. While migration rates are clearly surging, precise data on new Venezuelans in Colombia are hard to come by, as many cross the border without visas or any form of documentation. Today, one-tenth of Venezuela’s population of nearly 31 million lives outside of the country, many of whom crossed the “trochas,” or unpaved dirt roads that filter into Colombian border towns in the province of Norte de Santander.
In the provincial capital of Cúcuta, authorities are scrambling for solutions. At Erasmo Meoz, the city’s main public hospital, lines stretch out the door as hundreds of Venezuelans seek medical assistance that is unavailable or unaffordable at home. The hospital has accrued a debt of $1.3 million for services provided to Venezuelans, which Colombian insurance companies refuse to cover. At Cúcuta’s Jesuit Refugee Service Center, the number of Venezuelans applying for asylum status has doubled, according to manager German Ortega, with 160 people per day seeking legal or logistical support.
Making matters worse, the two countries have little incentive to draw attention to the problem in a productive, cooperative manner. Caracas officially denies that its citizens are fleeing to Colombia and has, for the past decade, refused to release migration statistics. President Santos, on the other hand, faces a 24% approval rating at home and a combative right-wing opposition led by former President Álvaro Uribe. Incensed by the peace process and critical of the president’s perceived weakness in dealing with Maduro, the Colombian right is aggressively angling towards the 2018 elections. President Santos’ single-minded focus has been the fragile accord that will—for good or ill—define his legacy. As the process hits snag after snag, he can hardly afford a national panic about a crisis the Venezuelan border.
For Maduro, the political status quo appears similarly fragile. While he governs under emergency rule, he has often flirted with border politics and allusions to an unholy alliance between Colombian paramilitaries and Venezuelan dissenters. In August of 2015, for instance, he dispatched an additional 5,000 troops to the border for an “indefinite” period of time after three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded by an unidentified gunman.
As things continue to unravel in Venezuela and the influx of migrants swells, Bogota will need to tackle a series of ever-growing threats head-on. Scant resources have hamstrung the ability of local authorities to adequately deal with the refugee spillover thus far. Delayed intervention by the federal government threatens—as manifested in other refugee crises around the world—to leave a desperate population vulnerable to criminal attractions. In Cucuta particularly, which is already a hotbed of lucrative coca cultivation and newfound power struggles between armed groups like the ELN, the Gulf Clan Puntilleros, and the Pelusos, who have all rushed to fill the department’s FARC-inspired power vacuum, the inflow of thousands of refugees would provide these rival groups with a steady stream of potential victims and recruits. At a time when the government is struggling to efficiently demobilize one guerrilla group, it would be a major setback to the peace process framework to see another emboldened and eager to fill the void. There is also a risk that—as Venezuela deteriorates further—the arms and money that the government has funneled to militia forces and criminal groups will filter into the black market and across the border.
President Santos’ recent decision to send a delegation to study and learn from Syrian refugee camps in Turkey is a step in the right direction, but is mostly symbolic unless it is coupled with concrete, deliberate action. Unlike neighboring Peru and Chile, Colombia has not offered Venezuelan arrivals temporary work visas or other forms of humanitarian legal status, despite calls from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to do so. As it has done with other national crises, such as the recent mudslide in Mocoa—or more relevantly, the sudden deportation of thousands of Colombians from Venezuela in 2015—the Santos government should call upon its national disaster agency, the UNGRD, to establish a crisis center. As it did two years ago, the center, working in conjunction with the Colombian military, could provide essential services to incoming refugees and help maintain order while getting a more accurate sense of the scope of the problem. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Refugee Agency are currently carrying out interviews of Venezuelan arrivals to ascertain legal and humanitarian needs. While important, these two bodies should help work to get proper funding for the region’s medical facilities in preparation for continued migration inflows.
This issue is one that should unite all sides of Colombia’s bitterly polarized political spectrum. For Colombia, a failure to address the refugee problems along the border could result not only in an expansion of insecurity in the area in the short-term but it could also further endanger long-term plans to reestablish a government presence in border towns that have long fallen under FARC control. Additionally, taking action now while refugee flows remain relatively manageable may help prevent a potential diplomatic clash with Venezuela, much like we saw in 2015, when President Maduro summarily expelled some 1,500 Colombians almost overnight.
At present, the Santos government seems to be crafting various contingency plans and holding high-level meetings with other neighbors to coordinate an eventual response, but is focusing overwhelmingly on the FARC demobilization and reintegration plan. The foreign ministry has, perhaps reflective of the government’s views, similarly indicated that while Venezuelan immigration is growing, it is not yet on a scale “massive” enough to warrant alarm. Humanitarian and security concerns at the Venezuelan border, however, may not be issues that can be put off for much longer.
Colombian politicians of all ideologies should also avoid the growing temptation to demonize these migrants and stoke fear about an impending refugee crisis. While chaos in Venezuela represents a threat to Colombia, the ordinary Venezuelans fleeing in search of peace, stability, and opportunity are hardly to blame. Those driven by xenophobic impulses should only remember the not-so-distant history when, to thousands of Colombians, it was Venezuela that represented a better future.