Here’s Why Colombia Opened Its Arms to Venezuelan Migrants—Until Now

For years, Colombians fleeing violence left for Venezuela. Now mass migration flows the other way.

A Venezuelan family at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on January 10. (Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images)
A Venezuelan family at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on January 10. (Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images)

In Tijuana, Mexico, after walking in a caravan for weeks in late 2018, Central American migrants were met with tear gas lobbed over the U.S. border, protests, and Mexican citizens screaming: “This is an invasion!” In Chile, Haitians grappled with a controversial campaign by the Chilean government to fly migrants back to Haiti. And in Brazil, Venezuelans escaping economic and political crisis were met in August 2018 with violent rampages along the border, forcing hundreds back to Venezuela as their belongings were burned.

As mass migrations sweep across Latin America, a growing wave of xenophobia has taken hold. Until recently, though, Colombia, which has absorbed the lion’s share of the exodus of more than 3 million Venezuelans, has been marked by a relative absence of clashes and anti-migrant rhetoric.

An estimated 4,000 people stream across the Venezuela-Colombia border every day, as hyperinflation, starvation, and violence worsen under the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The more than 1.3 million Venezuelans who have settled in Colombia have overwhelmed border zones and major cities, which experts say are unprepared to manage the crisis. However, Colombia’s borders and the arms of the Colombian people have remained comparatively open—partly because that mass migration once flowed in the opposite direction.

Beginning in the 1960s, when guerrilla groups and government forces began to clash, through to the rise of cartels and paramilitaries in the 1980s, violence in Colombia has persisted for decades. The 50-plus-year armed conflict displaced millions of Colombians, many of whom turned to the oil-rich neighbor that offered a chance at work and peace: Venezuela.

In 2007, Colombians made up roughly 5 percent of asylum-seekers, according to the earliest available data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And between 2000 and 2012 alone, more than 400,000 Colombian migrants arrived in the bordering countries of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Colombia became a country of movement and still has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, higher even than Syria. Today, the collective memory of violence and decades of displacement is still a fresh one.

“Colombia is a country that starts immigrating—it never receives,” said José David Caña Pérez, a leader of a migrant refuge in the border city of Cúcuta. “It’s not accustomed to it because it has immigrated all around the world.”

Millions of Colombians are believed to have left for Venezuela over the course of the conflict, according to Marco Romero Silva, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), though due to irregular migrant flows, specific statistics remain largely unknown. That mass migration tied the two countries together, as refugees built new lives and families with Venezuelans.

Now, formerly displaced Colombians are migrating back to their home country, often with binational families. Arles Pereda, the president of the aid organization Colony of Venezuelans in Colombia, is among them. Born in Venezuela to a Colombian father, Pereda immigrated to Colombia 10 years ago and watched widespread instability shift from one country to the other. “Now when Venezuelans come, if [Colombians] were in the same situation, they are more accepting,” Pereda said. “They adapt faster to the Venezuelans when they come suffering because they themselves suffered years ago from displacement and from violence.”

Aid organizations have provided food, shelter, child care, and medical and legal services to arriving Venezuelans but have struggled to keep pace with the magnitude of those seeking aid. Since taking office in August 2018, Colombian President Iván Duque has called repeatedly for international support for countries on the receiving end of the exodus.

Since the beginning of the swell of migration, the Colombian government’s public stance has also been welcoming to migrants. It has stemmed in part from a bitter animosity between the Colombian government and Maduro. When Maduro faced a drone attack in August, he initially blamed former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. A few days before, Santos granted permission for 440,000 Venezuelans to stay in Colombia. And in a speech before the United Nations, in which he denounced Maduro’s regime as a dictatorship, Santos’s successor, Duque, referred to the arriving migrants as “Venezuelan brothers,” saying his country has and will always receive the migrants with affection “despite any social and fiscal difficulties because we are united by fraternity.”

“Those immigrants, or refugees, leave because of the existence of President Maduro,” said Silva, the CODHES director. “They [Colombian politicians] see them as victims of their enemy.”

The Colombian government has developed programs to support Venezuelan migrants, such as a border mobility card to allow migrants to move between the two countries and a special work permit known as the Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP), which has allowed hundreds of thousands to legally stay and work in Colombia for two years. While the Colombian government stopped issuing the border permit in early 2018, it began reissuing the permit and PEP in late 2018.

Colombia’s response has been dramatically different than that of other neighboring countries. Facing the tide of migrants, former Brazilian President Michel Temer deployed troops to the border and in December called for an “intervention” in one of his country’s border states, where tensions have skyrocketed. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” by Brazilian media, has campaigned on a platform of xenophobia, once calling refugees entering Brazil “the scum of the Earth” and announcing his intention to withdraw from a U.N. migration pact last week. Riots against refugee camps have taken place along the Brazil-Venezuela border, in one case forcing 1,200 migrants, including women and children, to flee back to Venezuela.

Now in Colombia, the fraternity touted by politicians may also be fracturing.

Staggering hyperinflation in Venezuela is predicted to hit 10 million percent in 2019, cutting off access to basic food staples and medicine. The coinciding exodus is stretching Colombia’s resources to a near-breaking point as clashes against the migrants sprout up across the country. In the capital, Bogotá, protesters screamed at a recently opened refugee camp and claimed the Venezuelans would only bring crime and disease. Threats against migrants have begun to circulate across the country, according to Colombia’s migration authority. From mob attacks in the capital to a stabbing of a Venezuelan prostitute in a fight with Colombian sex workers, reports of attacks targeting Venezuelans have emerged.

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Andes director for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said conflict is festering in the South American country. “Solidarity will only go so far,” Sánchez-Garzoli said. “If you talk to Colombians in these areas, they believe that crime is worse, things are worse because of Venezuelans. Whether or not that is true is something else. There is definitely a building sensation of scapegoating toward the Venezuelans.”

While some have begun to call the migrants criminals, the tension is rooted in the country’s own workforce issues. The armed conflict left 7.5 million people displaced countrywide and paved the way for high levels of unemployment and underemployment in Colombia. Nearly half of those employed work in the informal sector—cash-in-hand jobs, such as selling food on the street and farm work, that don’t include benefits and rarely if ever meet the minimum wage, about $245 per month. And as Venezuelans come to the country, often so they can send money back to their families, they compete for those jobs, accepting drastically lower pay than their Colombian counterparts. For Colombians working in that sector, wages and job opportunities have been undercut, bringing with it a simmering resentment. A June 2018 census showed that more than 60 percent of the Venezuelan migrants in the country were either unemployed, informally employed, or working independently. Less than 1 percent reported that they had formal employment.

“We are migrating to a country with needs too,” Pereda said. “There are many of us, and we are only going to arrive in greater numbers.”

An April report by Colombia’s National Association of Financial Institutions said Venezuelan migration could increase unemployment countrywide from 9.4 percent to as high as 11 percent.

This has allowed unrest to grow in places such as Cúcuta, a border city where migrant leader Caña Pérez has lived his entire life. For years, he said, his home was marked with a sense of likeness among its multinational residents. “Venezuela has always been a brother,” Caña Pérez said. “And in the border zone, we are practically neighbors. We are practically Venezuelans.”

That changed when the steady stream of Venezuelans turned into a flood. The border city already had an unemployment rate drastically higher than the rest of the country when it became the entry point for the exodus. Many migrants sleep on the streets next to backpacks and suitcases. “Colombia was not prepared to have immigrants because Colombia does not have opportunities to work,” Caña Pérez said. “It’s still picking up the pieces from the armed conflict.”

The U.N. refugee agency is seeking $738 million to support countries including Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador as they receive migrants, but all signs point to the situation only deteriorating further. The Venezuelan currency loses value every day, and the Maduro regime becomes increasingly isolated from world leaders, most recently as 13 foreign ministers of nations belonging to the Lima Group, which covers the Americas, said they would not recognize Maduro as he began a six-year term last week. The Colombian government estimates that as many as 4 million Venezuelans may live in the country by 2021. If national and regional aid efforts cannot keep pace, clashes may only worsen, not just in Colombia but in countries in Latin America where violence has already been seen.

“You definitely have what I think is a ticking time bomb,” Sánchez-Garzoli of WOLA said. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist focusing on migration, human rights, and politics. Twitter: @meganjanetsky