In 2016, as the Venezuelan economy spiraled further into turmoil, Imalay González made a tough decision. Electricity in Valles del Tuy, the region where she lived with her mother and two children, 3 and 6, was sporadic. Water was scarce, and most days they had barely enough to eat. With medical care in the South American country deteriorating, she worried what would happen if she or her children got sick.
González knew of other Venezuelans who had traveled to neighboring Colombia and found work as street vendors or in restaurants or supermarkets. So she packed some belongings, hugged her babies, and boarded a bus for the 865-mile journey to the Colombian capital of Bogotá.
For two years, she searched unsuccessfully for work, eventually returning to Venezuela because, she says, “I did not want to end up sleeping in the streets and starving to death, as with some of my countrymen.”
But after becoming pregnant, she decided that for the future of her family and unborn child, she needed to leave Venezuela again and return to Colombia.
In May 2019, her son, Teylor Jose Carmona, was among the first children born to Venezuelan mothers to be granted Colombian citizenship under a new policy known as Primero la Niñez, or Children First. It is one of the many humanitarian gestures Colombia has extended to Venezuelan migrants like González and her family—making the nation a global standout at a time when many other countries are closing their doors to refugees.
“This has been a blessing from God,” González says. “My children are my life, for them I am here, far from my parents and my roots. Today, I have the oldest child in school and little by little I try to rebuild my life.”
Since 2015, more than 4.7 million Venezuelans have fled the social, economic, and political turmoil as well as violence in their home country. Neighboring Colombia, which began its post-colonial history as a single nation with Venezuela, has openly welcomed more refugees than any other country, about 1.6 million people.
They have been accompanied by nearly 300,000 returning Colombian citizens who, in recent decades, had emigrated to Venezuela, fleeing the effects of Colombia’s half-century of armed conflict and seeking economic opportunity in Venezuela’s once-thriving economy.
This flood of people crossing the border in search of food, shelter, work, and medical care, and fleeing persecution and violence, has overwhelmed the country of 50 million, straining Colombian social services. It brought particular pressure to border regions like Norte de Santander, a department (similar to a U.S. state) on the Colombia/Venezuela border.
Colombia’s generous and welcoming policies have come as many countries in the region, as well as wealthier Western nations—from the United States to Greece—have enacted tough new policies restricting migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. And the country has become an advocate on the international stage to draw global attention to the crisis next door.
“At a time when a lot of countries are closing their doors and either quite literally trying to build walls, or just introducing policies that are very restrictive or impractical to Venezuelans in particular, Colombia has been very generous,” says Daphne Panayotatos, an advocate and program officer with Refugees International who wrote a report calling on the world to bolster Colombia’s response.
“Many Colombians see this as returning the favor,” Panayotatos says. “In fact, many of the people crossing the border to Colombia from Venezuela are themselves returning Colombians, either first generation—who were displaced and are now returning—or second generation—whose parents were Colombian but who were born in Venezuela and are coming back.”
In announcing the new citizenship program for the children of Venezuelan mothers, Colombia’s President Iván Duque had a message for the world, saying, “… to those who want to use xenophobia for political goals: We take the path of fraternity.”
He and other Colombian leaders are hopeful their country will benefit economically from the influx of professionals, including doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs among the refugees.
“We are working very hard just to help these people to get a formal job or to be entrepreneurs,” says Felipe Muñoz, Duque’s advisor on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. “But this is not easy; there are lots of bottlenecks in our legal system that we need to break just to get them a legal route to more easily get a formal job.”
The generosity of Duque’s right-wing government toward Venezuelans stands in stark contrast to the response by other conservative leaders around the world. And it contradicts Colombians’ views of Duque on other social issues.
In November, for example, thousands of Colombian workers, students, and human rights activists staged one of the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in decades. The protests targeted Duque’s government and the president’s failure to implement the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as economic and corruption reforms.
Help came early
The root of Venezuela’s problems can be traced to more than a decade of mismanagement of the country’s economy—especially its all-important oil industry. Venezuela’s rich oil reserves once made the country the richest in South America, attracting immigrants from neighboring Colombia and elsewhere in the region seeking economic opportunities. But production of oil began to slow in the mid-2000s, and a drop in global oil prices in 2014 hit the country particularly hard.
The recession led to hyperinflation of the Venezuelan Bolívar, which has made the currency nearly worthless today. The economic disaster led to shortages of food and medicine, turning an economic crisis into a humanitarian one. Meanwhile, corruption among the country’s political and military leadership has led the country’s leaders to largely deny the existence of a crisis.
As conditions worsened, relations between Venezuela and Colombia deteriorated. In 2015, Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos responded to Venezuela’s expulsion of thousands of Colombians by constructing tents and living quarters for those returning home.
Colombia also grants citizenship to returnees’ Venezuelan family members. “We want families to live together, not to break them apart,” Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín said at the time.
Across the country, dozens of institutions, international organizations, government agencies, and volunteers have formed a network to help integrate migrants into Colombian life, providing orientation to incoming refugees as soon as they step onto Colombian soil and guaranteeing food, lodging, and transportation to get people to and from work.
Colombia created a series of work permits known as Permiso Especial de Permanencia, or PEP, to provide legal status to Venezuelans who entered the country without a visa. For those who qualify and are able to obtain the benefit, PEP not only provides permission to work but also access to the public hospital system, and it allows children to attend public schools. As of October, 2019, nearly 600,000 Venezuelans had been granted PEP.
In August, the government created a path to citizenship for more than 24,000 children born in Colombia since August 2015 to Venezuelan mothers, changing the country’s long-standing policy that required at least one parent to be a legal Colombian resident.
Overnight, children who had been born stateless were eligible to receive all the benefits of Colombian citizenship, making it easier for them to access education and health care.
“The Government of Colombia will contribute to prevent this vulnerable population from becoming stateless, representing a very important step to guarantee its integral protection,” said the government in a statement.
A new life for refugees
At Divine Providence House, a soup kitchen operated by the Catholic Diocese of Cúcuta, Colombian and other volunteers have been preparing packed lunches daily for thousands of refugees.
Cúcuta is the capital of Norte de Santander and is about six miles from the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, which connects the two countries across the Táchira River.
It’s an area where many Venezuelans have settled and Providence House’s director, Father David Cañas, says the facility has been serving about 4,500 pounds of food a day. Since it opened in 2017, about 3.3 million have been fed, something Cañas calls “a miracle of love.”
“We have had to persevere in the face of the great migration,” Cañas says. “Our volunteers get tired … because the work never ends, and we receive very little support.”
This kind of generosity helps Venezuelans like González, the mother of three who twice fled Venezuela for Colombia. She qualified for PEP and is now a legal Colombian resident.
Karen Rodríguez, who arrived in Colombia in August with her 3-year-old son, also qualified for PEP. Her husband left ahead of the family and rented a room inside a house in Cúcuta, where he worked as part of a crew that earns Colombian pesos carrying the luggage of people crossing daily between the countries.
Rodríguez, 20, was seven months pregnant when she and their son traveled more than 300 miles from their home in Valencia to join her husband. She wanted to cross the border as soon as possible, because she knew substandard medical conditions in Venezuela put her and her baby’s lives in danger if she gave birth there.
“I saw children dying in hospitals because of medical malpractice. My fear was this would happen to me. I decided to pack my bags and gave birth to my son in Colombia,” Rodríguez says.
Her son, Isaías Pineda, was born in September at a hospital in Cúcuta, where births to Venezuelan mothers outnumber those to Colombian mothers 3 to 1. He received medical attention, which she doesn’t believe he would have in Venezuela. A few days before returning home, Isaías obtained his birth certificate, a document that entitles him to Colombian nationality.
Venezuelans living in Colombia are also working to help one another. One such initiative is Caminantes Tricolor, a foundation whose founder, Alans Ernesto Peralta, is a Venezuelan lawyer who fled to Colombia.
His foundation started out helping Venezuelans traveling by foot across the continent—to Peru, Ecuador and Chile—in search of new opportunities. “But I noticed that this was not easy, and the volunteers got tired,” Peralta says.
Now, at Casa Morada, Caminantes Tricolor’s operation center in Cúcuta, Venezuelans are given orientation and support with immigration paperwork and finding work in industry, farming, and elsewhere. In 2018, the organization says it helped 1,800 people receive assistance with things like food, lodging, and clothes.
Recently, the organization formed an association that employs 40 people on a farm to plant sugar cane, a typical crop of the southern part of the country. “This generates [unity] and sends this message: Venezuelans who are here, we want to work, we want to contribute to this development, because it is our own development,” Peralta says.
“We know that our impacts are small, like a drop in this great ocean of problems,” he says. “But we promote projects that can be replicated in other departments of Colombia. We want to plant an economic model, where Colombians and Venezuelans come together to share knowledge, culture and … progress.”