Over recent years, the situation of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia has been deteriorating and Colombia has responded to this economic and social crisis in peculiar ways. Through COVID-19, these responses have been contradictory at the international and national levels, with the Colombian government purporting to protect human rights, but in reality hindering the already limited access to public health services by migrants and refugees.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis has become increasingly prominent on the international public agenda. The phenomenon of migration and exclusion has had an especially profound impact on migrants who are in an ‘irregular situation’ (for the Colombian authorities, an irregular migrant is someone who has entered through unauthorised pathways, known as trochas, or who has stayed for a longer period than authorised and thus remains in an irregular situation). The greater part of this exodus (approximately 37%) is in Colombia. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration, ‘more than half of the Venezuelan population in Colombia lack regular status, affecting their ability to access essential services, protection and assistance’.
The current pandemic has shone a light on the contradictory dynamics in the protection of human rights of the growing migrant population in Colombia. Just a few days after the state of emergency over the pandemic had been declared by Colombian authorities, the Colombian president expressed that the care of the migrant population in Colombia is perhaps their greatest challenge in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the same official statement, President Iván Duque reiterated that Colombia is in solidarity with the Venezuelan brothers who have taken refuge from the crisis in the neighbouring country, but warned that ‘we will not have tolerance for bad behaviour here’, and that ‘whoever is committing crimes will be immediately deported’ (authors’ own translation). In fact, although the Colombian president’s press release discussed diverse subjects, the same headline heavily focused on deportations, and clearly invoked a warning.
Another one of the Colombian government’s inconsistencies in migration policy can be found in the recent creation of the Estatuto Temporal de Protección para Migrantes Venezolanos (Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan Migrants). This decision has been welcomed internationally. Nevertheless, by way of illustration, just a few weeks prior, the Colombian president had announced undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia would be excluded from COVID-19 vaccination. In other words, the same government that presented internationally a legal plan to protect migrants denied vaccines to more than 55% of the Venezuelan migrants in the country (approximately 950,000 people) because of their migratory status. There is no doubt that this decision represents social discrimination based on legal status, and is an exclusionary policy and practice towards the most affected and the most vulnerable.
Simultaneously, the military confrontation has continued with ongoing forced displacement in both countries as well as heightened criminal activity at the border. In Colombia, the fighting between armed groups displaced over 11,000 people only in the first two months of 2021 – a rate seven people every hour – and criminal groups continue to grow. According to research conducted by the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Peace and Reconciliation Foundation) on the Colombia-Venezuela border, there are 28 illegal armed structures present, among which are the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN, National Liberation Army); 13 other organised armed groups, including the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL, Popular Liberation Army), Los Rastrojos, the Gulf Clan, and ten post-FARC armed groups; and 14 criminal organisations such as Los Pranes and the Sinaloa Cartel. This creates a complex scenario, with public servants in both countries tolerating (and even forming alliances with) these illegal armed structures, further demonstrating the contradictory behaviour of the Colombian government.
Colombia’s official discourse at the international level seems to comply with their human rights obligations, but at the national level, the governing party, Centro Democrático, stigmatises migrants and refugees from Venezuela and frames them as threats for national security and public health. Moreover, Colombia’s exclusionist practices have become more obvious during COVID-19, increasing the obstacles faced by Venezuelan migrants and refugees in accessing the same Colombian health system.
The political framework in the current pandemic, in theory, puts social protection forward; but, in practice, it offers social exclusion, as more than half of the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia lives in poverty and marginalisation. The Colombian government is seeking to improve its image in the international scenario, without acting to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on vulnerable migrants in a context of increasing xenophobia and social exclusion.
Juan Pablo Serrano Frattali
Dr Juan Pablo Serrano Frattali is a member of the research group Social Anthropology of Motricity at the University of Granada. He has a Masters in Intercultural Mediation and Citizen Participation from the University of Valencia, a master in Social Development from the Catholic University of Murcia, and a Ph.D. cum laude in Migration Studies from the University of Granada. His research interests lie specially in the areas of forced displacement in Colombia, and Venezuelan refugees and migrants both in Colombia and in Venezuela.