'I can build a real life': Colombia to grant legal status to Venezuelan migrants

'I can build a real life': Colombia to grant legal status to Venezuelan migrants

Move to grant protection status for 10 years described as ‘the most important humanitarian gesture’ in the region since the 1980s

When Beritza Colina, 30, began the month-long march from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, to Bogotá, the capital city of neighbouring Colombia, she was expecting the same frosty reception that thousands of her compatriots had received when they too crossed the border without papers.

The near-900-mile journey with her five children was arduous, but without work in Caracas and such a large a family to raise, Colina saw little choice. “In Venezuela we couldn’t survive … we had to come here,” she said outside a clinic for migrants in Bogotá, having slept rough on the streets since crossing into Colombia at the end of last year. “We just hoped our situation would get easier.”

On Monday, her prayers were answered when Colombia announced that it will grant legal status to an estimated 1 million undocumented Venezuelan migrants inside its borders, allowing them to work legally and access health and education services. Just over half of the 1.7 million Venezuelans in Colombia – about 950,000 people – have formal status.

The protection status will last for 10 years.

The decision was described as “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region since the 1980s, as well as “an example to the region and the rest of the world”, by Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, who joined Colombia’s president Iván Duque in announcing the measures.

Venezuela, despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, has been mired in economic and social ruin since 2014. Hyperinflation, food shortages and power cuts are a daily reality.

President Nicolás Maduro, who inherited power and the “Bolivarian revolution” from the late Hugo Chávez in 2013, has resisted efforts to oust him, and his security forces have violently clamped down on dissent.

More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, with Colombia the most popular destination.

“Migration crises are by definition humanitarian crises,” Duque said on Monday, explaining the measures to a Colombian population that has at times bristled at the influx of Venezuelans and the strain it has placed on services.

“We have close to a million migrants in our country whose names we don’t know,” he said.

The move was celebrated by humanitarian organisations and governments around the world. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, congratulated Duque for the announcement on Twitter, adding that “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programmes worldwide.”

In Bogotá, there was relief among undocumented migrants. “I slept easier last night than in years, and I was sleeping on the street,” said Colina.

For Andrea Guerra, 19, who has been undocumented in Colombia for three years, it was welcome news. “Now I can apply for real jobs, and I can think about building a real life here,” she said.

The measures will also allow Venezuelan migrants to receive vaccinations against Covid-19, a reversal of the country’s position in December last year, when Duque said that Venezuelans without formal migratory status would not be eligible.

In his announcement on Monday, the Colombian president called on the international community to help fund vaccination efforts for migrants.

With the example now set, migrants and rights groups called on other countries in the region to relax their tough stance on Venezuelan migration.

“This wasn’t something I was expecting, but it is among the best things that we could have hoped for,” said Dayana Mendoza, 43, a Venezuelan who runs Mujeres de Nueva Luz, a small foundation helping new arrivals find their feet in Colombia. “Hopefully other countries in the region will now follow Colombia and open their arms to us.”

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