Photo: Gerencia para la frontera y migración desde Venezuela, Presidencia de la República de Colombia

Colombia Braces for a New Surge in Venezuelan Migration

December 18th is International Immigrants’ Day. Lucas Gómez García, Colombian border manager, tells us how the neighboring country is preparing for the growing number of Venezuelans, even with the border officially closed

After being appointed as director for Asuntos Económicos, Sociales y Ambientales for the Colombian Foreign Office, on October 9th, Lucas Gómez García took the border manager position, which had been vacant for over two months.

The new responsibility for this Colombian official was duly expressed by President Iván Duque: “to keep tending to Venezuelan brothers and sisters, in conjunction with the State, and also with mayors and governors.”

Having plenty of experience in migration issues as a consultant for the Organization of American States, for the International Organization for Migration and the Norwegian Council for Refugees, Gómez García tells Caracas Chronicles what his administration’s biggest challenges are.

You, along with the ministry advisor for the Venezuelan Embassy in Colombia, Rafael Del Rosario and Leopoldo López visited several locations along the border where Venezuelan migrants concentrate. This journey is part of the coalition’s strategy to also tend to the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis in Colombia. What were the agreements with López and the guidelines in this strategy regarding our migrants?

I went with them, but in reality, our role was to show them what Colombia is doing in regards to the attention given to the migrant population, so that he could have an idea of the coordination between the Colombian government and the social actors, international aid, and territorial entities. We have a very unique situation at the border: it’s a closed but living border, where in spite of the political hardships, the Colombian State has kept its resolve to open the doors to Venezuelan migrants.

You speak of “a unique situation” at the border. At this moment, what’s going on there?

The fact that all the regular paths are closed results in certain irregularities. On the border we used to have a migration pendulum of between 55,000 and 60,000 people crossing from side to side, but today these people can’t go through the regular ways. So, since the border is closed, we have reinforced our police and military controls, also understanding that there’s a flow of people in that sector who live off binational trade. Furthermore, we’re noticing that the flow is changing directions: there used to be a flow of Venezuelans who wanted to go back to Venezuela because of COVID-19, but in the last few weeks, even the past couple of months, more Venezuelans want to enter Colombia than those who want to go back to their country.

The border is still alive and the doors are open, so while some Venezuelans will remain there, others will reach Colombia. There’s an urgent matter that needs to be answered: what’s your office doing to lighten the economic impact generated by the COVID-19 pandemic in migrants?

We were looking to take the leap with humanitarian aid and use it for Venezuelans’ socioeconomic integration, with an added key component for us: understanding that the migration we have in Colombia today is leaning towards being permanent. COVID-19 has put the brakes on many of the integration policies we had and it put the need for humanitarian aid front and center again, and our administration has focused on that. Now, we’re trying to leave that humanitarian attention logic behind, so that they might start to enjoy the economic recovery policies the Colombian government is carrying out, taking into account the large flow of migrants expected in the upcoming months. We’ve been doing all of this at the request of President Duque and because we have understood as a State and as a country, the need to hold out our hands to our Venezuelan brothers and sisters.

“Healthcare is guaranteed for all migrants in our territory, no matter what their status is.”

Socioeconomic integration is part of the Venezuelan Migration Attention Strategy by the Social and Economic Policies National Council, known as “Conpes 3950,” which ends in 2021. Which goals have been met and how will your administration solve what’s left to do?

The Conpes 3950 drew out the first guidelines on what was to be done. We worked based on attention and integration of the people in regards to public policies. In terms of health and education, large steps have been taken forward. For example, healthcare is guaranteed for all migrants in our territory, no matter what their status is. Obviously, the type of attention and the way they get to it is different if the migration status is legal or illegal, but you won’t find a migrant here who can say that they were denied emergency medical attention in a Colombian hospital. The numbers the hospitals report at the border are very telling: eight out of ten births are from a Venezuelan mother. In education, over 350,000 are enrolled in schools.

Are there any pending matters?

I hope that before 2020 is over, we can introduce what we’re calling the “PEP educativo” (Special Stay Permit for Education), special permits for those children who, regardless of their migration status, managed to access the education system in our country. In terms of housing and basic needs, it’s been a bit more complicated, and the pandemic brought along new challenges, but accompaniment assistance was offered to families who were going to be evicted during the pandemic. The Conpes also serves to strengthen existing institutions who tend to the migrant population from Venezuela, like Border Management, and to coordinate with other State institutions. This has been difficult for Colombia, since we had never thought about our migration policies, but these debates have already taken place in the Senate. We’re hoping that in the first semester of 2021 we’ll have a modern policy which will understand the new characteristics we now have and that, by the end of this government’s administration in 2022, we’ll have clear answers on what this migration will mean in the next few years.

According to UN reports, for the year 2021, the number of Venezuelan migrants could go over six million. Your country is one of the first destinations or, one of the passing through countries; which measures will you take?

We’ve called on the international community so they don’t leave us alone, but also our institutional scaffold is looking to understand the logic behind that wave. If we’re a passageway country, we need to find a way to make sure that that journey is done safely, in an orderly manner, controlled, where we can think of a humanitarian transport scenario with agreements with other countries, obviously taking into account vulnerability criteria because we can’t allow humanitarian aid to be taken advantage of. We’re looking for alternatives.

“We’re under a lot of pressure in our healthcare system and our social security system which could lead to scenarios of stigmatization and xenophobia.”

The perception is that international cooperation is trailing off or is looking away. What’s going on? And without a stout international cooperation, how will Colombia manage all this?

Here, we have to draw the attention of the international community about what we’re going through: when you look at the relationship between the amount of dollars invested in cooperation per Syrian migrant (the largest humanitarian crisis in the world) compared to the amount per Venezuelan migrant (the second in the world), the relationship is almost seven to one, even eight to one. In other words, about $280 per Syrian migrant versus $48 per Venezuelan migrant. What we’re receiving, if we look at the different migration waves that have reached Colombia, is a more vulnerable population, and we have to close that vulnerability gap in order to be able to enter a place where socioeconomic integration can begin. So, the attention we have to give the Venezuelan migrant gets bigger and bigger. We need the international community, our regional neighbors, and larger allied countries to take a leap. They have to go from words into action, because Colombia is making an enormous effort investing billions of pesos to tend to this population, even though it’s not the sole responsibility of the Colombian State.

Colombia is considered a model when it comes to migrant attention in the region. What are some good Colombian migration policies that other neighboring countries can copy?

To think about a progressive migration policy based on principles of brotherhood and empathy, of opening doors, with a disposition to receive, welcome, and integrate, knowing that integration isn’t just an institutional point of view, it’s also social. You don’t have that in all countries and, of course, it has its consequences. We’re under a lot of pressure in our healthcare system and our social security system which could lead to scenarios of stigmatization and xenophobia. One thing which is well-aimed in our communications is telling our Colombian brothers that our history is linked to Venezuela and a few years ago, in times of armed conflict and few opportunities, it was us who went to the other side of the border.

It seems that not all leaders in your country are in the same communication path to achieve integration. How do statements by the Bogotá mayor Claudia López affect the perception Colombians have of Venezuelans?

I think they’re unfortunate comments, which generate stigmatization and xenophobic scenarios. At Border Management, we’ve made a call to be responsible with comments like those, because this confirms the need to be much more assertive in our communications. We’ve been very clear that crime doesn’t have a passport and we need to promote the message that the good outnumbers the bad. In this regard, we have to generate more empathy and work in a coordinated way with local authorities.

“You can’t have integration without legal migration status.”

Since you took charge, you’ve pointed out that the main challenge is integration and regularization of migrants, and their access to the workforce. The PEP card, while a big achievement, isn’t handed out a priori or massively. You can’t enter the workforce if your migration status isn’t in order, and without this, you can’t have integration. How can it be achieved with the PEP?

As you well put it: you can’t have integration without legal migration status. Our policy in terms of regularizing migration status shows that almost 60% of the population isn’t in order. This can’t go on. We’re working to identify schemes which will allow us to relax some requirements hard to meet by the majority, because we understand the conditions in which these migrants are arriving, vulnerable, without a passport, just an identity card. We have to move forward in identifying those we have in our territory to have a regular and organized and controlled population to really manage a full integration. If we achieve that, we will grow so much more as a country.

Is there any progress in relaxing the requirements and handing out the PEP?

We have thought that this has to go through an easier identification and registration process. We have to adapt to the behavior and dynamics we have in the territory. We also need to raise awareness in Colombian institutions. For example: the first drafts of the PEP needed a passport. Today, asking a Venezuelan who’s been here for over three years illegally for their passport is just placing a hurdle in front of them. I believe it’s about gathering all the necessary measures so as to be able to provide the migrant with tools to come closer to the institutions and be able to enter a place where they can get in order, and also give ourselves the tools we need to understand the migration we have and to guide the policies for the integration of these migrants.

Eduardo Stein, UNHCR representative for refugees and Venezuelan migrants, has pinpointed migration status as the largest geographic need in the hemisphere, but not all countries in the region give refugee status a priori or a PEP card. Worse yet, there isn’t a unified term when they speak of Venezuelans who are forced to migrate. While a regular migration status doesn’t solve the problem, it does allow for migrants to solve their most immediate concerns; how can we move forward in terms of legalizing migration status in the region from what Colombia has achieved?

It’s about the differences in how to tend to them. We need more commitment, no matter which point of view you want to give it. We all have to play our part so that the Venezuelan population, which is running away from Venezuela for reasons as diverse as hunger, to political persecution, can find an answer in neighboring countries. Solidarity prevails, there’s no discussion. It’s necessary and an obligation to find a way to provide, even if only temporary, protection for those migrants inside the territory. We have to work hand-in-hand with the Lima Group, put it on the Quito Process agenda.

In spite of closed borders and COVID-19, our migrants keep running away from the complex humanitarian crisis and now entire families do so by taking clandestine pathways. What’s your call to conscience?

To potential migrants I’d like to say that this isn’t the right time, to not take the risk, you’ll be at the mercy of criminal gangs. The borders are closed, but we won’t close them down so that no Venezuelan can come through; you have to wait. There are moments for this and there are moments when it’s harder, because you’re risking your lives. Besides, we’re going through a pandemic. There are peaks in the northern part of Santander which we have to understand and accept.

You make a call for good judgement to migrants, when the reason for them running away is the responsibility of the Maduro regime. Shouldn’t the call to conscience be aimed at that government?

We’re clear on that: the only reason the Venezuelan population looks to the other side of the border is because they don’t have the minimum conditions to live under the illegitimate and illegal government of Maduro. He’s the one who’s causing these migration flows. We have no relation with that regime and we don’t want to nor will we have it in the near future. We don’t make a call to an illegal and illegitimate government, we make a call to the population who’s running away from that regime, while we know and understand the hardships they go through, and that’s why we keep providing protection in our territory.

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.