Over the past few years, almost one million Venezuelans have left their homes in response to the country’s worsening economy and security. While food has become so scarce that the average Venezuelan has lost 11 kilograms in body weight, doctors are fleeing the country and hospitals experience electricity crises and scarcity in medicines. As a result of poor living conditions, some have emigrated to the US or Spain and others to South-American countries, primarily neighbouring Colombia. The Simón Bolívar international bridge, connecting Venezuela and Colombia, is overcrowded on a daily basis with thousands of Venezuelans with backpacks and suitcases, trying to escape the humanitarian crisis.
In the past the situation was reversed – Colombians were fleeing their homeland due to internal armed conflict, seeking a better life in Venezuela – back then a prosperous state with huge oil reserves. So, what is the response of Colombians now that the tables have turned?
A Passing Problem?
Mass migration in Europe has shown how easily the situation can get out of control. It’s difficult to accept big numbers of people from another country when it is not clear how long they will stay. They need shelter, access to basic services like healthcare and police, a way to financially sustain themselves and so on. All this requires resources and if the hosting country is poor and cannot afford to sustain the number of incoming refugees, it finds itself in an especially difficult position.
It is important to say at this point that many Venezuelan migrants are either crossing the border on a regular basis or using the Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronterizada (Border Mobility Card), which permits them to enter Colombian territory to purchase goods and then travel back. The former includes citizens with dual nationality as well as Colombians who have emigrated to Venezuela in the past. For example, last year there were approximately 35,000 people entering and 37,000 leaving the country per day. The fact that many immigrants intend only to pass through the country and continue to a different final destination in Latin America is sometimes ignored, as we have seen in the case of Europe.
There are several possible reasons why Colombians are starting to be worried about the huge influx of their neighbours, and these can be divided into three categories: political, cultural, and economic. Whereas ‘gringos’ (read Caucasians) from Europe might have a very positive experience with Colombians and generally consider them to be very nice and welcoming, the image of Venezuelans tends to be quite the opposite. Some like to stereotype Venezuelans as lazy, backward-thinking socialists. It is also not uncommon to witness Colombians shouting at them on the streets, calling them “vagos” (lazy) and other swear words.
But where does the Colombians’ fear of Venezuelan migrants stem from? It is partly caused by disinformation based on the castrochavismo ideology, spreading the belief that they will lead the country to economic failure. Propagated mostly by the country’s conservative block, it has caught on via social media rather quickly. However, this explanation is not sufficient, nor is it applicable to all Colombians who are afraid of mass migration. On the contrary, many Colombians are aware of the sheer number of legal and logical reasons why Venezuelans cannot and would not influence the politics of their country. The results of last Sunday’s elections, where leftists and the far-left FARC did not fare very well only supports this argument.
Indeed, it is very hard to understand such xenophobia between nations that are culturally so close to each . For instance, both countries share a common history and venerate the same independence leader Simón Bolívar. In addition, their national cuisines are very similar and some of their typical meals are based on similar recipes, such as arepas, tamales, empanadas. Last but not least, both nations are well-known for their fondness for telenovelas, reggaetón, salsa, merengue and other manifestations of popular culture.
So, the only understandable reason for the Colombians’ resentment towards their neighbour is, one could argue, related to economy. This is surely double standards. When it comes to economic migration, it is easier to migrate for some nations than others. So it stands to reason that Venezuelans might be seen by Colombians as competition. As far as education is concerned, the two nations are not that far apart. In fact, according to available data, Venezuela had more students in tertiary education in 2015 than Colombia. Consequently, it is quite easy to understand Colombians’ fear of ending up unemployed or having to compete with Venezuelan counterparts willing to work for less.
Interestingly, this is exactly what happened in the past, just with reversed roles. Recently the unemployment rate in Colombia has risen and the country remains one of the most unequal in the region when it comes to the distribution of wealth. The irony is that it was not so long ago that Colombians were fleeing their country and found refuge in the neighbouring countries like Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, but this argument is ignored in the debate.
As things currently stand, many Venezuelans use Colombia as a transit country, heading further to Ecuador, Chile, Argentina or Brazil. It’s possible that most will return to their families once the country’s economic and political situation improves. However, after five years the likelihood of return generally diminishes. Still, the situation ´back home´ remains a crucial factor in this context. Questions such as “can the state guarantee our safety, access to healthcare and education etc?” are only a few examples of the refugees’ main concerns.
Easing the Situation
In February, the Colombian government introduced the so-called Permiso Especial de Permanencia (Special Permit of Permanence). This document allows Venezuelans to work, study, and even apply for social security. It is not, however, a residence permit or a substitute for a visa which, in turn, means that it is not to be granted to persons that intend to settle in Colombia. After two years of residence, holders cannot ask for another permit and must return to Venezuela. Other initiatives include a meeting between the defence ministers of both countries to tighten common border security.
The current situation should also be an opportunity for the next Colombian government to show strong leadership and maturity. This needn’t come at a particularly high price, given that the war with FARC is over and defence spending can go in different directions. Doing so would also build on the 2015 new budget distribution in which education surpassed defence. Indeed, if Colombians displaced by decades of internal conflict return en masse there will also be another spurt in the need for basic services.
Colombia could also use the changing security situation to its advantage and show the world that it is a much different country from 20 years ago. To this end, using careless rhetoric to connect Venezuelans with ELN (the second biggest Colombian left-wing guerrilla group) only increases the threat of conflict between Colombians and Venezuelan immigrants and seems like desperate chest pounding rather than a well thought-out strategy. Instead, improved relations offer the prospect of greater cooperation regarding the cross-border crime that developed as a result of instability. Why look inwards when you could kill two birds with one stone?
That said, it is nevertheless important to point out that the political and security situation in Colombia remains fragile. Opponents of the peace deal have a worrisome rhetoric and want to modify the accord, which could be of concern because they received more seats in both chambers of parliament than any other party. Negotiations with ELN are on and off, while attacks still happen. Over a hundred society leaders and human right defenders pushing for the implementation of the peace accord were assassinated last year. And criminal groups are trying to seize power in former FARC-controlled territories. The last thing Colombia needs is more violence in its backyard or its neighbourhood.
Image source: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)/Nicolas Raymond