By Brynna Boyer
Within the past month, the Colombian government decided to grant Venezuelan refugees residing in the country a ten-year temporary protection status. Amid an enduring Venezuelan crisis, which has lasted for more than five years, it is the first country to do so.
Over the past six years, around 5.3 million people, more than one sixth of the country, have escaped the tragic economic catastrophe and brutal political repression induced by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Although Venezuela’s refugee situation is not the result of war or a natural disaster, the consequences are no less severe for the population.
The economy of Venezuela is primarily dependent on oil, as the country has a considerable supply of fossil fuel reserves. But the petrostate’s chiefly single-product economy has struggled in recent years due to falling oil prices and increasing sanctions from other countries in retaliation of Maduro’s oppressive regime. The inflation rate consequently skyrocketed to 1,300,000% in 2018. As the economic crisis’s calamitous burdens overrun into 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic will only rub salt into the wound.
Unfortunately, the government has expressed little concern to remedy these issues. In fact, Maduro has exploited the hungry for political gain. In 2016, the Venezuelan President created the Local Food Production and Provision Committee (CLAP). This crucial program provides food to more than 15% of the population. However, that essential aid comes with the caveat of political support towards Maduro’s regime, which helped him win the re-election.
This political scheme has reportedly also been used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit the regime’s political elites. Additionally, U.S. sanctions and Maduro’s aid blockades have further forced Venezuela into a dire economic situation. Currently, 64.8 percent of the population live in poverty.
At least 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees have fled to Colombia during the ongoing economic crisis and political turmoil in Venezuela. The number of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the Colombia account for more than 37 percent of the displaced Venezuelans in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Most of the Venezuelan population residing in Colombia lacked legal status, hindering their integration into their host country’s society as they could not access essential services, protection, and assistance. However, the revolutionary bestowal of the new protection status will raise a substantial migrant population out of a legal, financial, and social limbo.
The temporary protection status will also provide access to basic services, including the national health system and the national Colombian COVID-19 vaccination plan. These policies will ensure that not only the health of the migrants is maintained, but also the public health of Colombia.
Allowing Venezuelan migrants to integrate in Colombia will also provide them with access to larger swathes of the job-market, as they can be employed legally, and will have to depend less on welfare schemes. This will help Colombia’s socio-economic recovery from the havoc wrought unto the economy by the Pandemic, as the country’s citizens and migrants will not have to rely as much on national aid and will be able to add to the workforce.
Before this decision, Venezuelans comprised a large part of Colombia’s informal economy, often working as self-employed street vendors and contributing to labour which was paid ‘under the table’, i.e., the wages were not taxed. Now, as a recognised part of the national workforce, Venezuelan refugees will also be able to pay back into the Colombian economy, as being able to work legally will mean an increase in tax revenue from that community.
Most importantly, Colombia’s novel policy can influence surrounding countries to follow their lead by demonstrating that protecting and supporting large numbers of vulnerable people has mutual benefits.
This policy appears advantageous to both Venezuelan refugees and the Colombian economy, which begs the question: why has this not happened sooner? And why is Colombia the only country to offer this type of support to Venezuelan migrants?
Perhaps other countries in the Americas could be convinced to adopt similar strategies if they were offered proper aid. Relief relies not only on the willingness of countries to accept and help these people in their time of need, but it also relies on support from international donors, humanitarian organisations, development banks and the private sector.
To aide a crisis of this magnitude, investments in the form of job creation, the expansion of healthcare, funds for housing support and other benefits for the most vulnerable are imperative. To adequately support the influx of Venezuelan refugees, host countries must have the capability to support themselves.
However, the Venezuelan refugee crisis is leagues behind in international funding when compared to other refugee crises of a similar scope.
By the end of 2020, five years after the start of the crisis, a total of 5.3 million Venezuelans had fled their country. The magnitude of this mass exodus is remarkably similar to the number of Syrian refugees that had fled their own country by 2016, approximately five years after the beginning of the war in Syria.
The Venezuelan crisis is well on its way to being to worst migrant crisis in modern history. Why then, are the amounts of aid and levels of media attention so exceptionally disparate in comparison to other comparable crises?
In 2020, the total funding per refugee for Syrian migrants was approximately £2,260. South Sudanese refugees received £1,000 per migrant. But that same year, Venezuelan migrants received only a mere £190 per migrant.
Furthermore, an appeal organised last year by the UN for £1 billion to help the Venezuelan refugees was only half-funded. The US was generous with its donations (which may, in part, be due to their imposed sanctions that contributed to Venezuela’s economic collapse), but the onus of support cannot fall exclusively on the United States and other countries in the Americas. More international actors must step up to resolve such a gargantuan and chronic crisis.
The trouble faced by Venezuelan migrants has for too long been overshadowed by other crises even though it is of an equal magnitude. It has been denied proper media attention and thus denied the aide it so desperately needs. It is only with Colombia’s recent resolution of support that hope for adequate aide is finally introduced for displaced Venezuelans.
In a world so often plagued by pervasive xenophobia and ignorance of migrant crises, the Colombian policy stands out as an example- a crucial first step in the right direction. It deserves to succeed, but an enormous amount of effort is needed from the international community to aid Venezuelan refugees in procuring adequate media attention and resources so other countries can be encouraged to follow suit.
As there seems to be no resolution in sight regarding the political turmoil and economic deterioration in Venezuela, the biggest refugee crisis in the history of the Americas, and soon the entire world, will not be disappearing anytime soon. Therefore, it is up to other countries and international actors to develop effective solutions to aid the victims of this enduring crisis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.