The Colombian Temporary Protection Status for migrants from Venezuela: Novelty and room for improvement
Colombian-Venezuelan border, March 2022. Picture by the author.
In March 2021, the Colombian government approved the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for migrants from Venezuela. Although temporary protection mechanisms are not new, institutions such as the UNHCR, headed by Filippo Grandi, have described the Colombian mechanism as ‘the most important humanitarian gesture’ in the region since the 1980s and ‘an example for the region and the rest of the world’. Let us consider what makes the Colombian TPS special and how it can be improved.
Migration patterns in Latin America have considerably changed after 2015 due to the exodus of over 6.81 million Venezuelans, which currently makes the Venezuelan forced displacement phenomenon one of the largest in the world. The root causes of this phenomenon are the imposition of an autocratic regime and an economic crisis that have caused a complex humanitarian emergency, and a political, institutional, and security crisis.
Regarding the categorisation processes of displaced people, in the Latin American context, the refugee definition has been broadened. According to the Cartagena Declaration (1984), refugees are not only persons who have escaped their country due to persecution but also ‘because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’. Thus, the definition can incorporate a variety of displaced people, including Venezuelans, and enable them to obtain international protection. However, the contemporary massive and forced displacement of Venezuelans in Latin America has shown that states in the region do not recognise Venezuelans as prima facie refugees except for Brazil and Paraguay.
Colombia, the country that has received the largest number of Venezuelans in the last seven years – as of February 2022, 2.47 million – responded first to the phenomenon with ad hoc measures such as the Special Permission to Stay (PEP), which allowed Venezuelans to gain access to healthcare, education and the formal labour market for two years. According to a World Bank study, the PEP helped Venezuelans have better living conditions than other migrants without documents. Nonetheless, the permission came with a series of challenges for Venezuelans, such as its temporality – it only lasted for two years that could be extended –, difficulties in opening bank accounts, and lack of recognition by different sectors in Colombia. In addition, it did not provide a route for durable solutions such as residence permits or citizenship.
This situation, along with the almost one million undocumented Venezuelan migrants in the country by January 2021, led the Colombian government to create a Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for migrants from Venezuela. Without recognising Venezuelans as refugees, the beneficiaries of this status have ten years to access Colombian health, education, and formal labour systems. In addition, they will be able to transit to durable solutions.
According to the UNHCR, temporary protection mechanisms are ‘pragmatic “tools” of international protection’. They are ‘complementary to the international refugee protection regime, being used at times to fill gaps in that regime as well as in national response systems and capacity, especially in non-Convention [1951 Refugee Convention] States.’ Although the Colombian response features a series of novelties, globally, temporary protection mechanisms are not new. States have applied them when their refugee regimes have gotten overwhelmed, among other reasons. For instance, Turkey, the US and more recently the European Union – to respond to the Ukrainian forced displacement as a result of the Russian invasion – have used this type of mechanism to either overcome the limitations of the refugee definition of the 1951 Geneva Convention, or to respond to mass forced displacement when the channels to recognise refugees individually are overwhelmed due to the high number of requests. Considering this, what makes the Colombian TPS different?
1. Its ‘temporality’: The Colombian TPS offers ten years to its beneficiaries to access Colombian institutional services in the health, education, and labour systems, while they collect the requirements to apply for a permanent residence permit.
2. Path to durable solutions: Once the beneficiaries of the TPS fulfil the requirements, such as five years living in Colombia and approximately 400 USD (which might be a challenge for some people), they can apply for permanent residence. One year after obtaining this visa, they can apply for Colombian citizenship.
3. Regularising people who were ‘invisible’: The campaign to regularise Venezuelans in Colombia under the TPS has been called ‘Visibles’ by the Colombian Migration Office, setting up a process by which almost one million Venezuelans that were undocumented by January 2021 have had the possibility of obtaining a regular status in Colombia. As of July 2022, 1,511,003 permits have been approved, and 2,326,968 people have registered to be beneficiaries of the TPS in only 14 months.
Venezuelans queuing in Bogotá, Colombia, in January 2022, during a massive delivery of PPT (the identity card that the Colombian TPS provides). Picture by the author.
Room for improvement
Although the TPS counts a series of advantages, having an identity document does not necessarily imply that these people will be automatically integrated into Colombian society. One of the biggest challenges is the integration into the formal labour market. Colombia has almost a 50% rate of informal labour, so accessing the legal labour market is already tricky for Colombians. Thus, developing labour integration routes specifically for migrants will be paramount. The Colombian government has taken significant steps, and TPS beneficiaries can already apply for a driver's license and validate their degrees and credentials. It is also essential to strengthen communication strategies so that Colombia's public and private sectors understand that TPS beneficiaries are allowed to access their services.
Another challenge is that asylum seekers must decide if they want to continue waiting for their refugee status approval or if they choose to have the TPS. This has been criticised by different NGOs since asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Colombia, and the TPS does not include the non-refoulement principle. Therefore, enabling asylum seekers to have the TPS while the decision about their status is made could help them to work in Colombia while they wait for a response since the process can take up to three years.
Moreover, only those irregular migrants, who were in Colombia before 31 January 2021, can apply for this process. After that day, only Venezuelans that stamped their passports when entering Colombia can apply for the TPS until May 2023. Venezuelans face critical difficulties in obtaining a passport due to its price (over 200 USD) and technical problems with the webpage that manages the process. Since the crisis in Venezuela has not ceased, many people continue crossing to Colombia via irregular paths, which increases their levels of vulnerability, especially in the areas occupied by armed groups and coyotes who take advantage of their needs to exploit or recruit them. Therefore, allowing those who entered Colombia irregularly after 31 January 2021 to access the regularisation process is vital.
Finally, family reunification measures should be incorporated into the Colombian TPS, and the mechanism could be extended to other nationalities also in need of this type of international protection.
The following years will be paramount to analyse the impact of the Colombian TPS on the lives of millions of displaced Venezuelans. Hopefully, with the arrival of the new Colombian government in August 2022, the positive steps of the TPS will keep on track, and the necessary adjustments from a human rights perspective will be implemented, especially considering a global panorama that does not look so optimistic for displaced people. The cooperation between the international community, national, regional and local authorities, as well as the civil society and private sector will be fundamental to achieving it.
María Gabriela Trompetero Vicent
María Gabriela Trompetero Vicent is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at Bielefeld University, Germany. She holds an MA in InterAmerican Studies from the same institution and a BA in Modern Languages from Universidad Central de Venezuela. She has worked as a research assistant at the Faculty of Sociology at Bielefeld University and the Migration Policy Institute. She has also volunteered to support Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Germany with the migrants' grassroots association ‘Einheit für Venezuela e.V.’. Her research interests include: migration governance, forced migration in Latin America and Europe, categorisation and labelling of people on the move, and the link between migration and social transformation.