Shadow Government

Don’t Let Venezuela’s Crisis Take Down Colombia Too

Washington should do more to address the worsening humanitarian situation in the region.

Venezuelans line up to cross into Cúcuta, Colombia, on June 8.
Venezuelans line up to cross into Cúcuta, Colombia, on June 8. Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images

The political crisis in Venezuela has settled into a stasis. International pressure has weakened President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, but it remains in control. The Venezuelan economy, however, is spiraling into the abyss. Hyperinflation and scarcity of basic staples and commodities have forced millions of Venezuelans to leave the country. Their departure has expedited the collapse of social services, which has created a vicious cycle, further accelerating the exodus, even as the Trump administration continues to push for more sanctions. In 2020, the number of Venezuelan refugees is set to surpass the number who have fled Syria—although they have received only 1.5 percent as much international aid.

Only a tenable political settlement in Venezuela will reduce the number of refugees fleeing the country and create conditions that could encourage many people to return to their homes. That does not look likely in the short run. Still, the United States should do more to address the humanitarian crisis. This year, Washington was quick to look to Venezuela’s neighbors for economic and diplomatic pressure to force Maduro from office. It now has to apply equal vigil to contain the fallout from the failure of those efforts. It should rally the international community to provide critical support and in doing so demonstrate leadership, vision, and that the United States both cares about the people of the region and supports regional stability.

Just as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria has spilled across the Middle East and beyond—with millions of refugees crossing into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and hundreds of thousands continuing on to Europe—Venezuela’s crisis is no longer just a Venezuelan problem. It is a regional problem and a threat to Colombia in particular. Colombia is now home to the largest population of people displaced from Venezuela: a group made up of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, as well as Colombian returnees who had escaped the country’s various internal conflicts to settle in Venezuela. They are now joining the millions of internally displaced Colombians, who have been struggling on the margins of society and the economy. In 2020, the number of Venezuelan refugees is set to surpass the number who have fled Syria—although they have received only 1.5 percent as much international aid.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate as an observer on Refugees International’s mission to Colombia. During that trip, we met with refugees in shelters, bus depots, soup kitchens, and on the streets of Cúcuta, Bogotá, and Medellín. We spoke to relief workers and staffers at local nongovernmental organizations and international humanitarian and aid agencies, as well as local and U.S. officials. We saw that the scale of the tragedy is daunting, as are Colombia’s needs in dealing with it. But most important, we learned that the crisis is still unfolding, and the worst is yet to come.

This was evident on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge in the north of Colombia, ground zero of the migration crisis, where thousands of people cross into Colombia every day. Some are leaving Venezuela altogether, on foot with all their possessions in tow. Others come to Colombia periodically to buy food and other amenities, go to school, or get medical services no longer available at home and then return to Venezuela. Many more use unofficial border crossings, walking through dense forest and rivers and in territory controlled by guerrilla forces and gangs to enter Colombia.

The country has welcomed migrants and refugees and supported the influx with local resources. Many Colombians have hosted refugees in their homes and still broadly support the open-door policy. But there are signs of strain, and more Venezuelans are expected to flee their country as they become more desperate and lose hope that the stalemate in Caracas will end soon.

International aid agencies and local NGOs officially put the number of Venezuelans in Colombia today at around 1.4 million, although unofficially they think the number is much higher, perhaps as high as 2 million. Many Venezuelans want to pass through Colombia to destinations further south in Chile, Ecuador, or Peru. They need support while in Colombia but not long-term housing, education, or employment. Ecuador, Peru, and Chile have started to close their doors to fleeing Venezuelans, forcing them to remain in Colombia.

According to some estimates, another 4 million Venezuelans could seek refuge in Colombia by 2021. The number of Venezuelans in the country could then total 6 million, equivalent to some 10 percent of Colombia’s population.

Venezuelans are not sequestered in camps in Colombia. They live throughout the country, largely in cities or in settlements on their outskirts. Those who have the right to work do so. Many more find employment in the informal economy. Children can attend school, and public hospitals provide free emergency care, regardless of migration status. However, the influx of refugees is placing a heavy burden on those already strained resources. Many Colombians also worry that the most recently arrived refugees, who have more acute needs, will impact social stability. Vulnerable refugees—including children—are being recruited or trafficked by gangs into sex work or indentured labor, some in coca fields. Local NGOs in Soacha, a municipality adjacent to Bogotá where many Venezuelan refugees have found shelter, told us that the presence of drug gangs, including Mexican cartels, is growing—along with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a violent guerrilla group. This puts at risk gains Colombia has made in ending debilitating civil conflicts that have torn the country apart—even as the peace process between the government and the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) comes under increasing strain.

What we saw in Colombia was a humanitarian tragedy evolving into a strategic one as the Venezuelan crisis becomes a Colombian one. Washington was most vocal on the migration issue earlier this year, drawing international attention to it and encouraging media coverage, viewing it as an embarrassment to the Maduro government and potentially a signal of its imminent collapse. But Maduro held on to power, and the refugee crisis proved to be not so much a threat to Maduro as a headache for Venezuela’s neighbors. That is exactly why the United States must take this humanitarian tragedy seriously. Washington is already the main funder for the humanitarian response, but it also needs to lead. For example, the United States should help mobilize other humanitarian donors and convince neighboring governments to open their doors. It should also encourage the World Bank to make additional financing available to countries hosting large numbers of Venezuelans.

Colombia is and has been a close ally of the United States. Over the past decade, it has made great strides in fighting narco-trafficking, ending internal conflicts, and creating a vibrant economy. Signs of progress are evident across Colombia. Washington lauded these achievements and contrasted them with the failings of socialist and populist experiments in Colombia’s neighboring countries. The refugee crisis is now threatening much of what Colombia has achieved. Columbia does not have the depth of social services to shoulder many more refugees. Without additional international assistance, the crisis will provoke social tensions and political reaction of the kind that has rocked Chile. The debacle in Venezuela is a testament to socialism’s bankruptcy and a cautionary tale against the promises of populism. But in its failure, Venezuela could succeed in defeating the Colombian model. The United States should not allow that to happen.

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Twitter: @vali_nasr