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Hate against Venezuelans in Colombia is a ticking time bomb

Sergio Guzmán & Juan Camilo Ponce | November 10, 2020

The writing is on the wall, xenophobia against Venezuelan immigrants is reaching dangerous levels as public officials use immigrants as scapegoats for growing insecurity. COVID-19 has affected Colombia’s public budgets as well as the generosity of foreign authorities to care for the millions of Venezuelans who continue to cross the border seeking a better life. Risks for violence against migrants are growing and should concern us all.

Venezuela and Colombia have a long-shared history of migration. Trends in binational migration have reversed from Venezuela receiving millions of Colombians who were fleeing economic hardship and conflict in the 1990s, to Colombia becoming the principal passage point and destination for the 4.8 million Venezuelans, who according to UN data, have fled their country since 2015. As Colombians, we are still grateful to Venezuela for receiving so many people back in the day. But alarmingly, the hospitality with which Venezuelans have been welcomed in Colombia is showing signs of strain .

Venezuelan migratory waves to Colombia can be traced back to 2002 when massive layoffs at PDVSA, the government ‘s oil company, signaled an influx of Venezuelan businesspeople, engineers, and oil executives who contributed technical knowledge and expertise to Colombia’s extractive sector. That can be considered to be the first wave of immigrants. As the government of Hugo Chávez became increasingly antagonistic towards the United States and started flirting with 21st century socialism, a second wave of Venezuelan migrants materialized. Although Colombia was not the first-choice for many of these wealthy migrants who also settled in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico—while on occasion travelling to Venezuela, where they still had significant business interests—Colombia was still a center of political coordination for the Venezuelan diaspora. For example, the country granted asylum to Pedro Carmona who successfully (albeit briefly) deposed Chavez through a coup attempt. Many of the Venezuelans who migrated to Colombia during the first and second waves were skilled and rich, which made it easier for them to draw sympathy from their Colombian hosts compared to the third wave.

The third—and current—wave of Venezuelan migration to Colombia is related to the deterioration of economic conditions in Venezuela since 2014. This includes chronic unemployment, growing poverty, and shortages of food and medicine, provoked by the country’s staggering official corruption, economic mismanagement, and internal political conflict. Nicolás Maduro’s economic ineptitude proved to be disastrous for the country following the global drop in oil prices. Contrary to the first two waves, the Venezuelans coming to Colombia were now increasingly poor and middle-class people who crossed the border by car, bus, and foot.

At the end of 2019, Venezuelan migrants comprised the largest economic migration in the world (4.4 million), surpassed only by Syria. Colombia welcomed 1.8 million Venezuelan immigrants—more than any other country. The Venezuelan exodus, the greatest human mobilization in Latin America’s recent history, has generated important sociodemographic, security, political, economic, and a cultural repercussions in its main host country. Although Venezuelans speak the same language as Colombians and have very similar religious and cultural traits, the differences are starting to shine through.

Signs of unease became commonplace in border zones such as Norte de Santander and La Guajira, where fulfilling the needs of the burgeoning population has posed budgetary and social challenges to local governments in terms of guaranteeing health, education, and well-being for the migrant population. This has put strain on local populations whose demand for city services had to accommodate unprecedented levels of immigrants.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 69 percent of Colombians have an unfavorable perception of Venezuelans living in the country. Likewise, the study showed that 80 percent of those surveyed said they disagreed with the government’s management of the immigration crisis, which as a result of COVID-19, has meant complete closure of formal border crossings. This makes it more difficult and dangerous for Venezuelans—particularly women—to cross over to Colombia. As reported by several outlets, close to 100,000 Venezuelans returned to their country when Colombia’s COVID-19 lockdowns hurt the informal economy, which is the principal source of employment for many Venezuelans. It is expected that many will try to return as the country looks to reopen its economy. However, returning migrants may find that they are returning to a more hostile environment.

There are growing perceptions among Colombians that Venezuelans are to blame for the increase in crime. Giving greater headwinds to this unfair perception, Claudia Lopez, the mayor of Bogotá, said on Friday “I do not want to stigmatize the Venezuelans, but there are some immigrants involved in criminality who are making our lives difficult. We welcome whoever comes to earn a decent living, but, whoever comes to commit a crime should be deported without contemplation.” This comment is an untimely gesture towards Venezuelans, whose permanence in Bogotá does not suggest a spike in crime. Quite the opposite, research suggests that Venezuelan immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.

Although the situation is urgent, it does not seem that the international community is contributing generously enough to address the crisis. According to a report in the New Humanitarian, “international funding for the crisis is scant—just over half of the USD $738 million requested by the UN in 2019 materialized. The UN has called for USD $750 million to help half of the seven million people it estimates need assistance inside Venezuela in 2020, and a further USD $1.35 billion to help four million Venezuelans across 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

 According to the Brookings Institution, the Venezuelan crisis has been significantly underfunded compared to others similar in size and scope, such as Syria and Sudan. While donors have contributed an average of USD $1,500 in assistance per Syrian refugee, the amount earmarked for each Venezuelan refugee is a meager USD $125. And these were pre-COVID-19 calculations. The pandemic has not only strained Colombia’s public finances by reducing the subsidies it can provide to immigrants, but donor governments are also likely to cut back on foreign aid at a time when it is needed the most. Colombia committed almost half a percentage point of GDP to finance the Venezuelan migration crisis during 2020, 2021, and 2022, but the pandemic is likely to affect this commitment as well.

This lack of funding, coupled with a certain increase in Venezuelan migrants as well as a tight economic situation at home, is a recipe for disaster. This spells a bad omen for Venezuelans as it is likely that populist politicians will continue to use immigrants as scapegoats and easy targets during the next elections. So far there are no Colombian equivalents of nationalist and anti-immigrant parties that are shaping populist policies in the U.S. and Europe, and elections will not take place until a few years from now . Perhaps in the run-up to the 2022 elections we will get a better sense of how attitudes towards Venezuelan immigrants will shape the political rhetoric used by candidates looking to score cheap points. This issue was exploited by certain political groups contending the 2019 local elections in crucial areas like Cúcuta and Bucaramanga, but it did not become a national phenomenon.

This does not mean that we should let our guard down or look the other way when Venezuelans are discriminated against by politicians or pundits. However, the lack of attention and funding seems to suggest that xenophobia may be on the rise, and violence against Venezuelan migrants is expected to increase. What will it take for governments to stop this ticking time bomb?