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Venezuelan migrants left in the lurch as COVID-19 stalls regional reforms

‘What started as a noble initiative for a comprehensive regional response has become a race to the bottom.’

Venezuelan migrants line up to receive food aid in Bogotá
Venezuelan migrants line up to receive food aid in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Work and travel restrictions due to the coronavirus mean many are already struggling to get by. (Luisa Gonzalez/REUTERS)

Two years ago, 11 Latin American countries gathered in solidarity to coordinate a progressive response to an unprecedented regional exodus. But COVID-19 has since crippled their economies and far-reaching migration reforms have stalled, leaving the lives and livelihoods of millions of Venezuelan migrants in the balance.

The 2018 Quito Declaration affirmed Latin America’s commitment to improving migrants’ access to regular status, health services, skills training, and the labour market. Signatories agreed to accept expired travel documents and to create an Information Card for Regional Mobility so Venezuelans could easily migrate and integrate.

But even before the pandemic, several countries began decreasing access to regularisation, with Chile, Peru, and Ecuador all introducing new or renewed entry protocols requiring unexpired passports or visas that many Venezuelans find difficult or impossible to acquire.

“Rather than follow-up, we’re seeing some extreme back-sliding, particularly in the last few months with the pandemic,” Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank, told The New Humanitarian. “What started as a noble initiative for a comprehensive regional response has become a race to the bottom.”

The result is that less than half of the 5.1 million Venezuelans known to have fled their homeland since 2015 have permits allowing them to reside and work legally in host countries, and the real fraction is considerably lower since many governments neglect to include migrants with no regular status in their numbers.

Most Venezuelans are relegated to the informal economy, with rates varying between 60 percent in Ecuador to 90 percent in Peru and Colombia. And when Latin American countries placed their countries in lockdown in March, the daily wages these migrants and their families relied upon evaporated.

The downturn has already forced over 100,000 Venezuelan migrants – left with few prospects and shut out from emergency aid designated for citizens – to return home to a country that is itself still in a humanitarian crisis. Many end up in crowded and unsanitary quarantine camps just over the Venezuelan border, while tens of thousands more remain trapped on the Colombian side, as the frontier is officially closed due to coronavirus, only allowing limited “humanitarian” crossings.

Read more → How COVID-19 has created a crisis on the Venezuela-Colombia border

While the optimal solution would be comprehensive legislation and a coordinated regional response, any efforts so far have been piecemeal. With rising xenophobia in several countries fuelled by increased economic and labour pressures, experts say there’s a lack of political will now to help the Venezuelans.

“Governments may prefer to legislate via decrees, and make policy for this population in a less public manner,” said Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Prompted by the pandemic, several Latin American countries – including Chile, Peru, and Colombia – are currently debating immigration bills, but none include comprehensive reform, and some actually call for nationalistic policies that would penalise informal migration.

‘The chain of poverty’

The pandemic has exposed how unstable most migrants’ lives are, especially when host countries don’t integrate them into their public systems, meaning they miss out on healthcare, economic aid, higher education, as well as any emergency COVID-19-related relief.

“The people arrive, begin to work and survive. But beyond that, they cannot get any stability in the middle class or long term at all,” said Lucía Ramírez Bolívar from the Colombian legal research and advocacy centre Dejusticia. “They are condemned to precarious conditions: to labour exploitation, living in crowded places, in places where there are no public services… they are another group that joins the chain of poverty in our countries.”

“The people arrive, begin to work and survive. But beyond that, they cannot get any stability in the middle class or long term at all.”

Like millions of others, Roberto, who preferred to share only his first name, left Venezuela when it became clear he could no longer provide for his family.

Without a passport, he crossed the border via an informal crossing in January 2018. His irregular entry into Colombia barred him from working legally or accessing any public support.

“It is a challenge being undocumented in this country,” he told TNH. A former shopkeeper, Roberto cleaned car windows at stop lights and sold sweets on buses in Colombia to send some money back to his family. But since the pandemic led to lockdown restrictions in March, he has barely managed to afford his own meals and rent.

Roberto, who still believes he is better off in Colombia, hopes to remain here. But applying for refugee status, which would grant him access to healthcare and assistance, is not something he will consider: “They told me that [refugee status] meant not returning to my home country, and I hope to return once the dictatorship ends.” 

Colombia’s ‘patchwork’ of solutions

Colombia holds the largest number of Venezuelan migrants, with immigration authorities placing the number at 1.7 million. Over half do not hold regular legal status, making Colombia the largest recipient of undocumented Venezuelans. 

Ramsey explained that Colombia holds a “patchwork of temporary protections” instead of offering a “clear single pipeline” to residency. The country offers four primary routes to regularisation, though each option has limitations and unrealistic requirements. 

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Venezuelans review documents for permission to stay in Colombia
Luisa Gonzalez/REUTERS
Venezuelans review documents for permission to stay in Colombia in 2018. More than half of Venezuelan arrivals in Colombia do not hold regular legal status.

Two of Colombia’s legal options – visas and the Special Permit of Permanence (or PEP, its acronym in Spanish) – require pricey passports that are often difficult to obtain. The official cost of the passport is about $200, though a source revealed paying $5,000 to circumvent several months of delay and bureaucratic hurdles. Visas also require a host of other documents – diplomas, employment verifications – that are costly and difficult to obtain and certify.

Unsurprisingly, with the minimum monthly salary in Venezuela equivalent to $1.50, only around four percent of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia have visas.

The PEP, introduced in 2017, allows Venezuelans to work, study, and access healthcare for up to two years. Ramírez from Dejusticia reported that 96 percent of Venezuelans with regular status in Colombia hold the PEP. However, it’s only currently available to Venezuelans who were already in Colombia by November 2019 and, although it’s renewable, it doesn’t offer a route to long-term residency.

For the majority of Venezuelan migrants who, like Roberto, entered Colombia illegally or prior to PEPs, two options remain: apply for Colombian nationality or refugee status. 

Nationality, which requires that at least one parent is Colombian, is often not an option. Last year, however, Colombia’s Congress passed a law offering nationality to approximately 24,000 children born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents between 2015 and 2021. 

While around 40-50 percent of Venezuelan migrants in countries like Brazil and Peru have sought asylum – acceptance rates vary widely from 0.2 percent in Peru to 28 percent in Brazil – less than one percent have done so in Colombia, and only a small fraction of those who apply, approximately 400 people, actually hold refugee status.

This is despite the fact that all Venezuelan migrants’ profiles align with the Cartagena Declaration, a non-binding agreement signed in 1984 that defined refugees as individuals threatened by “generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, or the massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

While some countries have expedited access to refugee status, Colombia’s system under a 2015 decree is so slow and inaccessible it “is obsolete”, according to Laura Dib, a Venezuelan migrant and attorney from the Legal Clinic for Migrants at the Universidad de los Andes.

As applications can go unanswered for years, most migrants prefer the PEP, even though it’s only a temporary solution. The Colombian government provides little education on the asylum option, so many migrants, like Rodrigo, can have misunderstandings about the process and what it might imply for one day going home.

“This migration is here to stay,” said Dib. “It requires long-lasting solutions, because this humanitarian crisis is not going to change soon.”

Muddled regional responses

Colombia’s Congress is currently debating a new migration law. It highlights the “need to harmonise public policy between governmental departments”, but NGOs say it doesn’t go far enough and fails to lay out real solutions for migrants needing legal pathways to stay and work.

READ MORE: How Colombia's law falls short

In 2011, Colombia’s Congress passed a law creating a “National System of Migrations”, but this was focused on supporting Colombians abroad and the scant three-page document makes no mention of regularisation options for migrants.

The new bill currently before Congress would be the first comprehensive legislation crafted in response to Venezuelan migration – only scattered decrees and resolutions exist, and there’s no formal migratory law that lays out a clear legal framework.

“All these different visas or permits expire at different times; they don’t have a clear connection to each other,” said Ramsey. “There’s no clear pathway for Venezuelans to consistently come and get access to regular status.”

This is partly because Colombia has historically been a country of emigrants rather than an importer of migrants, and thus has not seen the need to develop long-term residency routes. The proposed law even identifies 2017 as the first year when immigrant entries surpassed the official record of Colombians abroad. 

The new 115-page bill includes pages of definitions and additions to the 2011 law, while recognising migrants’ contributions to the economy. However, it contains more information on sanctions and deportation than on refugee services, and despite some tolerant-sounding language fails to outline concrete actions. 

“It is a law that doesn't propose structural changes to what already exists. Above all, it’s a law of reference,” said Ramírez. 

Dejusticia and a coalition of NGOs have suggested a raft of amendments: to protect children, women, and members of Indigenous, Afro-descendant, or LGBTQI+ communities; to provide permanent routes to legalisation aside from the limited visas, which could include expanding PEP to include a permanent legal solution, offering a humanitarian visa like the U or T visas in the US, or expanding nationality to birthright rather than just parental status; and for more efficient procedures so that asylum claims can be decided more quickly..

The group is also calling for: a wide range of experts – and migrants themselves – to be involved in drawing up the law; greater clarity on how local institutions will be involved in its design and implementation; and for responsibilities to be shared between government ministries rather than concentrated in the hands of the migration department, which they say wields too much power.

Like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have only recently experienced large immigration influxes, and their piecemeal approaches also leave most Venezuelan migrants to fend for themselves in the informal economy.

But some Latin American countries do have a lengthy history of receiving refugees and migrants, and more robust procedures. For example, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil already have a “long-term, institutional review” that incorporates “the reality of the Venezuelan exodus into their already-existing legislative framework”, Ramsey said. 

When migrants cross into these countries, they can seek asylum immediately and pursue formal employment while awaiting responses. Brazil created an “interiorisation programme” in 2018 that relocates Venezuelans from the northern border to 17 other states with more job openings.

Yet even in these countries, migrants have struggled to survive during the pandemic. In Brazil, a movement called “Regularisation Now” has the support of over 16 NGOs and is pushing for immediate residency regardless of immigration status. As Oriana Jara, an immigrant and president of one of the 16 NGOs, told TNH for a feature about their movement: “We’re not asking for new rights. We’re reclaiming the ones we already have under the law.”

Read more → COVID-19 sparks push for immigration reform in Brazil

But other countries in the region are taking retrograde steps. For example, the Chilean government has pushed for a more restrictive migration law, “seemingly spurred by a prediction that migration to Chile will increase following the pandemic”, Bolter said.

Similarly, Peru’s Congress introduced a bill in May that would “un-apply” the Global Compact for Migration, make irregular re-entry a crime, and void the Temporary Stay Permits that have regularised the status of about half a million Venezuelans in the country. If the bill is passed, these migrants would be deported. The legislation explains that the pandemic has created economic difficulties, and resources should be directed toward native-born citizens.

Although the bill is not expected to pass, Bolter flagged “the possibility that more governments will turn toward bills like these post-pandemic, [bills] which are more restrictive”. Politicians, she said, may be hesitant to pass legislation that “sends a message that migrants are getting assistance or special treatment at a time when everyone in the country is suffering”.

Peru’s $26 billion COVID-19 stimulus package also excluded migrants from aid, although the Andean country, along with Chile and Argentina, has offered legal permits during the health crisis to migrant medical professionals.

“What’s required here is political courage,” said Ramsey. “Governments need to stand their ground and take positions that are risky but factually sound, rather than give in to the xenophobia of the moment.”

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