Colombia Is Dealing With a Terrifying Refugee Crisis. Will Wealthy Nations Step Up to Help?

Venezuela’s tragedy is not that different in size and impact from the Syrian one.

Venezuela’s tragedy is not that different in size and impact from the Syrian one.

Jorge G. Castañeda

By Jorge G. Castañeda

Professor Castañeda is a specialist in Latin American affairs.

  • March 10, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

MEXICO CITY — Venezuela’s refugee crisis is the worst Latin America has ever experienced. In the past 15 years, more than five million Venezuelans, equivalent to 16 percent of the population, have left their country. By the end of this year, six million Venezuelans will have fled their country. Only the civil war in El Salvador, a much smaller country, in the 1980s displaced a similar proportion of citizens.

Although the diaspora is far-flung, stretching from Spain to Chile, Colombia has borne a disproportionate share of the heavy burden of the influx. One of Venezuela’s three continental neighbors, it has taken in the largest cohort of refugees fleeing Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship. In comparison, the United States will accepts only 18,000 refugees, from all over the world, this fiscal year.

Colombia began giving protection to refugees under its previous government, led by Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for pursuing a peace agreement with the guerrilla rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The country’s policy of open borders as well as extending health care and protection to Venezuelans continued under his successor Iván Duque, a right-of-center technocrat, who, at first glance, would not be an obvious candidate for expressing such solidarity with poor Venezuelans — especially since many of his compatriots are less sympathetic to their plight.

The refugees pouring across the border into Cúcuta are largely destitute: men, women and children fleeing not only repression and human rights violations carried out by Mr. Maduro, but more significantly, hunger, disease and a lack of basic necessities including medicine. They are running from a crisis that has dragged on for years with no end in sight.

Venezuelan exiles in Spain, Mexico and Doral, a suburb of Miami, are mostly middle-class professionals. But those arriving in Colombia are largely poor. The more than 1.6 million refugees in Colombia, a country of 50 million, as well as the 3,000 that enter each day need a lot of support: papers in order to work, schools for their children, medical care. More than 24,000 children of Venezuelan parents have been born in Colombia in the past few years. The country has offered them citizenship.

Mr. Duque is not having an easy time as president. Like Chile and neighboring Ecuador, Colombia has been rocked by protests over transport fares and gasoline increases, inequality, educational deficiencies and an unfair tax system. The teachers’ union is demanding higher wages. Thousands have poured into the streets of Bogotá in support of the peace agreements that Mr. Duque has been lukewarm toward. Investigations into military misconduct during the domestic strife of the last 20 years are unveiling tragic and embarrassing offenses.

So why is a conservative president, beleaguered by protests, behaving in such an unlikely manner toward refugees?

First, stopping the flood of people from Venezuela across porous border is nearly impossible without heavy-handed and costly measures.

Second, before the Maduro era, it was typically Colombians streaming over the border into Venezuela. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the Venezuelan oil boom attracted as many as two million Colombian immigrants, most of them fleeing the violence of the war with the FARC. Even today, after the peace agreements of 2016, Colombia has more displaced persons inside its territory than any other country in the world excepting Syria. Many Colombians remember that history, making them more willing to welcome refugees.

Finally, there is Mr. Duque’s profound dislike for the Maduro dictatorship. Like his mentor — some say his patron — former President Álvaro Uribe, Mr. Duque has been in the forefront of multiple attempts to unseat Mr. Maduro or schedule new elections in Venezuela. He could hardly reject or mistreat the victims of a regime he has set out to dislodge.

This attitude stands in contrast with that of other South American nations. As José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch Latin America director, declared a few weeks ago, “The example of Colombia’s generous welcome for Venezuelan refugees is admirable and should be followed by Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and the United States.” Unfortunately, it hasn’t.

Chile has now begun to demand visas and passports from Venezuelan refugees; most of them lack both. Ecuador, an important pass-through country, now also requires a visa for entry. Peru, with 860,000 Venezuelan migrants, remains relatively hospitable, but has also begun to institute restrictions. Mexico harasses them at airports and land border crossings.

Colombia is mostly on its own. International funding for the Venezuelan crisis is meager; the international community has spent less than $1 billion over the past seven years. According to a Brookings Institution study, this translates into $125 per Venezuelan refugee. In contrast, the world has dedicated approximately $1,500 to each Syrian refugee.

Washington should help much more than it does, but so should other wealthy nations. The crisis in the region is not that different in size, impact and tragedy from the Syrian one. It is Latin America’s greatest humanitarian crisis in years, and the country most affected by it deserves support and aid.

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