BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuelan migrants in Colombia welcomed a historic decision by that country to grant them protection for the next 10 years and are hoping the measure will make it easier to get jobs and access social services.
The temporary protection statute announced on Monday by President Iván Duque will give 1.8 million Venezuelans currently living in Colombia permission to stay and will enable them to apply for permanent residency.
It will be especially beneficial for 1 million Venezuelans who are currently undocumented and have left their country to escape food shortages, hyperinflation and the lowest wages in the Western Hemisphere.
“I think this will help me to have some stability,” said Wuilliamnys Querales, a 19-year-old high school drop out who arrived in Colombia six months ago with her baby boy.
Querales has no work permit and currently makes a living begging for money at a traffic light while she keeps an eye on her baby's stroller. She is hoping the new policy will help her get a job that enables her to pay for childcare.
“It’s ugly to be out here looking for help,” she said. “But at the moment I have no other choice.”
Venezuelans who want to apply for protection will have to register online and will then have to go to offices to get their fingerprints and pictures taken.
Mercy Corps, a humanitarian group that provides emergency aid to thousands of Venezuelan migrants, said the process of registering almost a million people and integrating them into social services like education and vaccination, will be a “mammoth task” for which Colombia will need greater international support.
While the decision to provide temporary protection to a massive number of immigrants and refugees was applauded by diplomats and humanitarian groups around the world, it could present Duque with political challenges at home.
Sergio Guzmán, a Bogota-based political analyst, said the new policy will likely decrease the president's popularity while putting migrants at the center of next year’s electoral debate. Colombia will hold presidential elections in May.
“Polls in Colombia suggest that most people here are not in favor of allowing Venezuelan migrants to stay,” Guzman said. “So some candidates might try to exploit this by tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment.”
A poll conducted by Gallup in January found that 67% of Colombians have an unfavorable view of Venezuelan migrants, while more than 80% said they disagreed with how Colombia's government is managing Venezuelan migration. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
But policy experts have widely backed the move, which is expected to make it easier for Colombia’s government to provide migrants with services that include coronavirus vaccines.
Dany Bahar, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that legalizing Venezuelan migrants was a “no brainer.” He said that while the move may have some short-term costs, it will benefit Colombia’s economy in the long run.
“The certainty of having documents and residence permits will allow migrants to invest in themselves and in their communities,” Bahar said. “It will enable people to open businesses, pay taxes and reach their maximum potential.”
A study conducted by Bahar in 2018 found that unemployment rates and salaries for most Colombian workers did not change after the country provided residence permits to approximately 300,000 Venezuelans.
Bahar said that in order to absorb the short term costs of integrating Venezuelan migrants, Colombia will need greater international support. Research conducted by Brookings found that by early 2020, international donors had spent approximately $1.3 billion in response to the Venezuela migration crisis, which began in 2015, while almost 20 times as much had been spent to meet the needs of Syrian refugees worldwide.
According to the United Nations, there are currently more than 5.5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees around the world, almost a third of whom live in Colombia.
Colombia’s government expects up to a million more Venezuelans to arrive in the following years as that nation’s humanitarian crisis deepens and its government becomes increasingly authoritarian.