Phillipian Commentary: Venezuelan Refugees

In Bogotá’s financial district, it’s hard to miss the children on every street corner, perfectly wrapped in blankets as their parents politely plead for coins to go towards their next meal, sometimes selling sweets from a plastic bag. Without further thought, every passerby knows who they are. Venezuelans. 

Holding cardboard signs on busy intersections and begging for money, huddled families slept on sidewalks—there were Venezuelans in every town and city I visited in Colombia. Close to the border, I saw a family of three hitchhiking, and a child not older than seven carrying a little Dora backpack. Outside of a mall I frequented, a nine-year-old Venezuelan boy was selling hugs for 100 pesos, which is equivalent to less than three cents. 

Due to the electricity blackouts, water and food shortages, political persecution, and hyperinflation caused by Venezuela’s dictator, Nicholas Maduro, over four million Venezuelans have fled to surrounding countries since the end of 2015, according to Al Jazeera. Colombia houses more refugees than any other country, 1.4 million officially, although the real number is estimated to be between 1.6 and two million, according to “The Hill.” Compared to other countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, which have recently enacted immigration restrictions, Colombia has been welcoming to the refugees. 

According to “The Atlantic,” more than 400,000 Venezuelans have been granted temporary residence, 24,000 Venezuelan children have been granted citizenship, and every foreign child is allowed to go to primary school. On the border, officials are investing in long-term solutions to integrate the Venezuelans into the local economy by providing tax breaks, more jobs, and more funding for hospitals and infrastructure, as well as a starting a local orchestra. President Iván Duque attributes these efforts to “fraternity” with Venezuelans. Unlike most of the world today, Colombia is straying from xenophobic policies and, instead, adopting compassionate ones. It’s also worth mentioning that when Venezuela was the richest country in Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century, the country took hundreds of Colombian refugees fleeing from guerrilla violence.

However, humanitarian experts warn that the rapid influx of refugees might be too much for Colombia to handle. As other countries start implementing stricter immigration policies and US-imposed sanctions on Venezuela make resources even more scarce, Colombia will receive even more Venezuelans, usually the poorest ones. The total is estimated at six million by 2021, ten percent of Colombia’s population, according to Foreign Policy. Despite government efforts at the border, schools have enrolled up to 300 new students without adding any teachers, hospitals have become overcrowded, and housing limited, leaving many homeless. Vulnerable Venezuelans have become entangled in Colombia’s armed forces conflict, as many have been enlisted in gangs and guerilla groups, women have been trafficked, and instead of going to school, some Venezuelan children have been forced to work in coca fields, the plant that produces cocaine. 

Additionally, the fear of the Venezuelan refugees lowering wages, as Venezuelans will work for less, has prompted an increase in xenophobia in Colombian citizens. In a coffee plantation I visited over the summer, for example, the administrators spoke of Venezuelans, even professionals, crossing the border to pick coffee beans during the peak season and lowering wages for Colombians. Though the World Bank has said that once these refugees become permanent residents, they could help stimulate the Colombian economy, polls have shown that a majority of Colombians support tightening entry and welfare for Venezuelans, according to the New York Times. In the streets of Bogotá, refugees have been told to go back to Venezuela and have been called slurs. In October 2018, a Venezuelan man was beaten to death due to malicious rumors. Throughout my visit, the distaste and scorn directed towards Venezuelans were evident in conversations I had with family: they did not want them here. Once, while passing by a family of Venezuelans pleading for money for food and shelter, a family member said with a frown, “they have too many children,” and continued to drive past them. 

With escalating guerilla conflicts, other countries closing its doors to migrants, and a lack of international donations, Colombia will continue to struggle to support the increasing number of Venezuelan refugees. According to The Hill, the number of Venezuelan migrants will surpass that of the Syrian refugee crisis next year, while international funding for the Venezuelans has only amounted to 1.5% of what was allotted at this point in the Syrian crisis. In addition to increased funding, other countries should open their doors to Venezuelan refugees, especially Latin American countries. Instead of causing more strife in Venezuela with sanctions, the Trump Administration should be implementing Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans. My cousin told me over the summer, “Colombia is trying to be in solidarity with the Venezuelans. But who will have solidarity with the Colombians?” 

In a political landscape full of xenophobia and increased border “protection,” Colombia is one of the few countries motivated by compassion and global identity. However, without foreign help, these humanitarian efforts will go in vain. It’s time for foreign leaders to take action and not simply watch as other countries overburden themselves for the good of humanity.