E.g., 10/01/2023
E.g., 10/01/2023
What Comes Next Now that Colombia Has Taken a Historic Step on Migration?
Muse Mohammed/IOM

Colombian President Iván Duque’s announcement that all Venezuelans in Colombia will receive a ten-year protection status represents a bold, first-of-its-kind move in Latin America and is “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region in decades, as one UN official termed it. The new Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan migrants (TSPV) replaces the two-year Special Stay Permit, and will apply to an estimated 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants. Notably, this could include nearly 1 million migrants in irregular status, provided they can demonstrate they entered the country before January 31.

As host to the largest Venezuelan emigrant population, Colombia already has been rightfully recognized for its creativity and generosity in welcoming more than one-third of the 4.6 million Venezuelans displaced over just a few short years. But successive rounds of temporary permits faced a key limitation: they did not provide a path to permanent residence for a population increasingly likely to stay, leaving hundreds of thousands without access to basic services or formal employment, and bubbling frustration in local communities.

Other countries hosting large numbers of arrivals have similarly seesawed between treating newcomers as guests and acknowledging they are here to stay, with restrictions creeping in as public support begins to wear thin. Colombia has decisively taken a move in the opposite direction, recognizing that keeping migrants in legal limbo deals a mortal wound to integration, and no society can be cohesive if millions of residents are in a permanent state of temporariness and precarity.

But investing in newcomers can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, getting Venezuelans into school and work quickly is vital to enabling them to thrive and contribute to their new home. On the other, this investment may come at a price if publics are not persuaded of its value for the overall society and see the spending as competition for scarce resources. As Colombia prepares to implement this most ambitious legalization, the hard work of translating policy into a long-term plan for social cohesion is just beginning.

Keeping the Doors Open: A Pragmatic Experiment

Five years into the costly Venezuelan displacement crisis and now amid a global pandemic, many onlookers anticipated that Colombia’s initial hospitality might come under strain. Some other Latin American host countries have wavered between policies that offer creative and temporary legalization schemes while imposing restrictions when numbers significantly increase. But Colombia also faces a practical challenge of geography: the government is aware that imposing harsher restrictions over a long and porous border would simply divert flows to illegal crossing points.

Colombia’s new plan is therefore generous but also pragmatic: it is the first of its kind in acknowledging that Venezuelans are here to stay, and the country is better off preparing for long-term integration. The TSPV permit allows access to services and employment and creates a pathway for recipients to transition to permanent residence (with time already spent in the country counting towards the five-year residency requirement). It overcomes the major shortcoming of the temporary Special Stay Permit (Permiso Especial de Permanencia, PEP)—which only afforded a two-year status with no possibility to transition to a permanent visa, and resulted in many people falling through the cracks. By the end of 2020, 56 percent of Venezuelan arrivals were in irregular status, limiting their access to services such as education, health care, and banking—and crucially, keeping them out of the formal labor market.

Box 1. Types of Legal Statuses

Prior to February 2021, Colombia offered three types of temporary residence permits for Venezuelans:

  • Special Stay Permit (Permiso Especial de Permanencia, PEP), which is valid for up to two years and renewable. The government had already renewed these permits twice, including the Special Permit to Stay for the Promotion of Formalization (PEP-FF), with 693,694 PEP issued as of October 2020.
  • Border Mobility Card (Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronteriza, TMF), which allows circular migrants to remain in the country for up to seven days. As of March 2020, when use of the card was halted, 5.2 million cards had been issued.  
  • Limited Entry and Stay Permit for migrants in transit (Permisos de Ingreso y Permanencia, PIP), which is valid for 90 days and renewable.

Source: Migración Colombia, Boletín Informativo de Migración Colombia 198, February 2021.

Going from Paper to Practice

TSPV issuance will require a massive logistical effort. In a first phase beginning as soon as April, migrants will have to show documentation to prove eligibility. Around half will theoretically be able to do this—including migrants who entered Colombia with a passport, those who already have a PEP, asylum seekers, and those now processing a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But they may not be aware of the steps they have to follow or the deadlines (for instance those without phones or internet access).

Migrants in irregular status will have a harder path. They will need to prove that they were in Colombia before January 31, and it is unclear what documentation can be used or how the government will verify this—especially if the application process is done online. A massive, tailored communication and outreach strategy will be needed to ensure migrants are aware of the requirements and have the technical know-how to apply. Government officials also will need to prevent the inevitable fraud of unscrupulous “brokers” charging fees to deliver permits. All of this will have to be done while following COVID-19 protocols.

Finally, outreach will also be needed within government (especially at the local level) so officials understand what rights are accorded to new permit holders—and to ensure rules are applied consistently. Lessons from the PEP show this is not an easy task. Although the government declared that migrants with temporary permits could access financial products and services, banks continued to demand citizenship cards or passports and proof of credit history to open an account.

The second phase, to be implemented over two years, will require building a universal registry of migrants, which may also create hurdles. Migrants will need to present a valid or expired identity document, a birth certificate (only for minors), sign an declaration stating their intention to remain in Colombia, and provide biometric data. Yet it is a challenge to obtain a Venezuelan passport, and many thousands will continue to arrive in Colombia without one.

Despite the January 31 residency requirement, the government already has announced that migrants who arrive legally over the next two years also may apply for the TSPV, in an attempt to discourage illegal entry. It is a seeming recognition that since Venezuelans will continue to come, it is better to integrate them into formal systems. But implementation will be key. If the requirements are not easy to meet (as with the chronic problem of lack of documentation), it could force more people into the shadows.

Creating the Conditions for Long-Term Social Cohesion

Research has long shown that the fastest engine to inclusion is to get migrants and refugees into school and work as quickly as possible—as well as avoid parallel systems to deliver services, except as a last resort. But establishing the legal right to access services is only the first step.

Experience from other refugee-hosting regions shows that getting displaced populations into formal employment, for instance, hinges on more than approving permits. When Turkey began issuing work permits for Syrians, just 25,000 of the 2.5 million Syrians in the country obtained them because the system was costly for workers and employers alike. Migrants must be able to meet the requirements, but employers must also have an incentive to go through formal systems.

The other important ingredient is public buy-in. Governments must bring communities along by justifying the value of these efforts, or else risk divided societies. In Colombia, the positive national narrative around the welcome for displaced Venezuelans belies some signs of tension. While polls show most Colombians support allowing newcomers to access critical services such as health and education, the story becomes more complex when people are asked about employment. Public opinion surveys done in September 2020 showed that over half of Colombians believe Venezuelans will undercut employment for natives and burden the economy. In this environment, announcing further investments for newcomers at a time of economic precarity—without articulating the long-term benefit for society—could aggravate existing anxieties.

There is no one “recipe” for social cohesion, but there are certain ingredients that may increase the likelihood for success:

  • Acknowledge people’s fears. Many Colombians feel solidarity with Venezuelans but still fear high unemployment, increases in crime, and overstretched public services. And already, inaccurate rumors are swirling that newly regularized Venezuelans will be able to vote in the 2022 elections. Counterintuitively, the best way to diffuse these fears is to acknowledge them head on. Rather than try to persuade publics they are wrong point by point, policymakers should listen to the spirit of these concerns and be open to discussing the costs of migration alongside the benefits.
  • Consider the symbolism of how resources are allocated: There may be fierce resistance to allocating specific resources to Venezuelans at a time when every corner of society is feeling the impacts of the pandemic—and most are feeling relative insecurity. Publics will want to see society-wide investments alongside initiatives targeted to migrants.
  • Tap into people’s innate sense of pragmatism. Integration is most successful if it is framed not as something we do “for them,” but for the benefit of the whole society. Leaders should harness feelings of solidarity by giving people a way to act in their own best interest that also serves the interests of the community. 

Recent polling shows that just 43 percent of Colombians feel that facilitating migrant integration benefits Colombia more broadly. Changing this perception will be key to getting the buy-in necessary to implement legalization. Doing so will be even more difficult in the context of the pandemic, where people may be competing over scarce resources and jobs, and have fewer opportunities to forge social connections. In order to achieve ambitious policy reform, though, publics must believe that their best interests are being served.