For Venezuelans in Colombia, the Long Path to Legal Residency

In a hair dye factory in Medellín, Colombia, Yaricel del Carmen Vielma sat facing a bare concrete wall, rushing to meet her weekly quota. During every eight-hour shift, she filled tiny tubes with aspirin-sized pellets of dye and packed them into cardboard containers the size of matchboxes. First one box, she explained, then the next, and the next, “and on and on for thousands, thousands, thousands.”

Another employee sat near her, but talking was not allowed. All Vielma heard was the whirring of the fans, the click of pellets filling tubes, and the scrape of folding cardboard as she dreamed of the paycheck to come and scrambled to fill 5,000 boxes by the end of the week.

But when payday finally arrived, Vielma’s boss handed her only half of what he had promised, leaving her unable to pay rent or buy groceries. Vielma fumed. As an unregistered Venezuelan living in Colombia, she had no recourse with her boss and little hope of finding a better job.

All that was supposed to change. On February 8, 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that the country would begin to regularize the status of the nearly two million Venezuelans taking refuge in the country, making it possible for Vielma and others to finally emerge from the underground economy. So far, 1.8 million Venzuelans have registered. But only about 300,000 Venezuelans have completed the process, and many have yet to see the benefits promised by the temporary protection status.

Despite its limitations, for many Venezuelans, obtaining regular status offers the chance to trade their precarious lives on the margins of Colombian society for more stability.After Syria, Venezuela is the country with the largest number of displaced people. Almost a third of the more than 6 million Venezuelans who have migrated are now in Colombia, more than in any other country. Colombia’s initiative grants those living in the country “Permission for Temporary Protection” (PPT in Spanish), a 10-year status that will allow them to work legally and access healthcare, financing opportunities, and education. Venezuelans who have arrived since January 31, 2021 have until November 2023 to begin the process, but only if they entered through official entry points. Venezuelans, like Vielma, who entered Colombia before January 31, 2021—regardless of migration status—have until May 28, 2022. Despite its limitations, for many Venezuelans, obtaining regular status offers the chance to trade their precarious lives on the margins of Colombian society for more stability.

Responding to the Exodus

The crisis in Venezuela has been years in the making. In the early 2000s, enjoying a windfall from high global oil prices, President Hugo Chávez invested heavily in programs that slashed poverty and significantly improved other socioeconomic indicators, though corruption and mismanagement were also rampant. In 2013, shortly after president Nicolás Maduro took office, oil prices plummeted, dragging the country’s economy down. Within a few years, hyperinflation spiraled, spiking to over 53 million percent by 2019, according to Venezuela’s Central Bank.

Increased U.S. sanctions aggravated the crisis, undermining Venezuela’s economy and disrupting imports. Food became scarce and food prices skyrocketed. According to a 2021 national survey on living conditions, food distribution programs designed to help the country’s poorest have lost coverage since 2015, and a quarter of the population now experiences hunger.

Since 2017, regular power outages and government-mandated rationing have left homes, hospitals, and businesses without reliable electricity and water. The supply chain also broke down for medicines and other basic necessities. Previously eradicated diseases reappeared, and other health issues received inadequate care.

Vielma’s family left Venezuela in 2017 and spent the next two years searching for a more stable life. After leaving Mérida, they lived for a year in a Colombian town near the Venezuelan border. Then Peru, second to Colombia as a leading host of Venezuelan migrants, began offering one-year temporary resident permits to Venezuelans, a short-term version of Colombia’s current initiative. So in 2018, like thousands of others, they made their way to Peru. When Vielma’s husband had an accident at work, the cost of medical care quickly ate up their meager savings. The family decided to return to Colombia, hoping once again that things would be better elsewhere.

Shortly after Vielma re-entered Colombia, Duque announced the regularization initiative. The plan made global headlines, and during a Sunday prayer at the Vatican, Pope Francis thanked Colombia for having “the bravery to look at those migrants and make this statute.” Shortly after, Spain committed 120 million euros to support Colombia’s ongoing peace and reconciliation processes and the PPT effort.

While many praised Colombia for this humanitarian act, some called the initiative a calculated move that may oversell the country’s actual capacity to support new residents.

“This opens the door for huge amounts of financial or international aid,” said New York University Latin American historian and former NACLA Executive Editor, Alejandro Velasco. “I’m just not sure we’re convinced that Colombia’s health and social welfare infrastructure is equipped to handle a million registered users.”

Shortly after announcing the plan, Duque admitted that one goal was to encourage educated Venezuelans to settle long-term in Colombia, contributing to the economy and hopefully fueling investment. In June, the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants raised $1.5 billion for Latin American countries where Venezuelans have settled.

In what seemed like a complementary humanitarian act, the U.S. government opened Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans last March. Then in January, reports surfaced that Venezuelans who were caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and had previously lived in Colombia were being sent back there, citing concerns about Covid-19. The Colombian government has denied the rumors of a deal with the United States to return 6,000 Venezuelans.

Experts also warn that although PPT lasts 10 years, it is still a temporary solution. Experts also warn that although PPT lasts 10 years, it is still a temporary solution. Venezuelans must choose between PPT and pursuing refugee status, which though permanent does not offer legal permission to work while a case is being processed, which can take years. As a result, many have forfeited their right to asylum and the protections it grants in favor of the PPT and the chance to work.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *