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Revisiting the Colombian dream: Venezuelan refugees 5 years later

By Sarah Etter-Hinojosa | Issue 24

Simón Bolivar, born 1783, led his people to independence from the Spanish Crown. He fought for independence for the age-old reason: to establish autonomy from oppressive forces and, simply put, to live a free life. Nonetheless, over two hundred years later, millions of Venezuelans have been forced to leave this precious land that was fought for on their behalf. Today, the “bolivar” is the Venezuelan currency named in Simón Bolivar’s honour. But ironically, it represents the tragic failure of the Maduro regime, with an inflation rate well over three hundred percent. The economic disaster has displaced over seven million, creating the largest refugee crisis in the world. 

Five years ago, Ana Marín Morales wrote an article titled “‘The Colombian dream’: Portraying the new routes”, which gave voice to the experience of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. She told the story of Yanira, a refugee experiencing marginalisation in Colombia. Yanira’s story highlighted the tension between roots and routes, deciding to leave her homeland and battling with what to bring to her new life. In our fifth anniversary issue, this article aims to revisit this piece and ask a few critical questions: How has the situation developed? Have Venezuelans found a welcoming home in Colombia, and what can we learn from examining their experience over the passage of time?

Most simply, the numbers have grown. Today in 2023, 7.1 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland. Over 3 million Venezuelan refugees have landed in Colombia. Some observers note many positive adjustments made by the Colombian government to accommodate the influx. In 2021, Colombia granted regularisation status and work authorisation to their Venezuelan population. These observers point out the many ways Colombia has tried to integrate Venezuelans, ‘Many municipalities have opened centers [sic] where Venezuelans can seek help and guidance to access government services, such as registering to the social security and health systems, finding a job, or obtaining legal support’. 

However, critics argue that President Gustavo Petro, elected in 2022, is stalling this progress by rolling back many of the efforts to aid refugees. Furthermore, though legal status, social benefits, and job access are excellent ways to strengthen human security, refugees still inhabit a dangerous and sometimes desperate social position by nature of their displacement. In this vein, ‘Penniless migrants and refugees are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many have little choice but to rely on informal work and are vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups or street gangs.’, writes the International Crisis Group.  

Outside of Colombia, the so-called “first world” has its own politics and perception of Venezuelans. Google trends show that American interest in Venezuela has slowly plummeted in the last five years, having peaked in 2010 and then again in 2019. However, interest in the phrase “Venezuelan immigrants” dramatically rose in 2022. This maps on to the search for “immigrant crime”, which peaked in 2022. This tells us a little bit about what kind of knowledge Americans are seeking as it pertains to the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela. Rather than taking a proactive position that aims to understand and help, the American attitude seems largely defensive. 

Finally, there is more than one elephant in the room when updating on the crisis in Venezuela.  Two major world events have loomed over the migrant experience in the past four years: the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Ripple effects of both issues found their way to Venezuelan migrants, which warrants more research and examination. The World Bank gave attention to how Colombia struggled to keep up with the medical needs of its refugee community during the pandemic. In addition to lack of access to health care, the UNHCR also highlighted the epidemic of evictions during the crisis, dramatically disenfranchising migrants and leaving them vulnerable to homelessness and extreme poverty. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has had a plethora of negative effects on the global economy, but it has also been a case study in the bias in aid distribution. The Washington Post helpfully investigated the imbalance of aid towards these two crises. 

It is tempting to look for a lesson or theme when revisiting a tragic issue. Either the world has improved, which is hopeful and inspiring, or it has worsened, which is appalling and spurs us to action. The Venezuelan reality is more complex than this. 

Since our first issue, the conflict of roots and routes has found more subjects. What is the resounding theme? As a magazine, run by those passionate about this issue, what do we conclude when we examine and interrogate tragedies and broken systems? Can we find a neat “moral of the story”? The truth is that roots and routes have always coexisted in a paradox that represents both injustice and travesty, as well as resilience and hope in new possibilities. The impossible tension between tragedy and hope is what fuels a desire to understand, investigate, and ultimately revolutionise. Since the five years that “The Colombian dream'' was written, countless human stories have emerged. Beautifully, Ana Marín Morales wrote, ‘Yanira’s case is not one-in-amillion, it is a-million-in-one’. In this, she verbalised a profound truth. In our fifth anniversary issue, let us sit once again with that truth.

Sarah Etter-Hinojosa

Sarah grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her wonderful parents and four brothers. Lancaster’s diverse and artistic community led her to an interest in migration and culture. She has her undergraduate degree in International Studies and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations, with particular interest in sustainable development, conflict prevention, and migration. In her professional research life, she has investigated economic history, protest movements, terrorism, and election transparency. In her free time, she loves reading, rock climbing, motor sports, and cinema, and hopes to learn as many languages as possible. 


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