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Colombia grants legal status to 1.7 Million Venezuelans, what are the Challenges?

The Covid-19 pandemic forced another humanitarian crisis to be totally forgotten. The following is a friendly reminder to the international community; Venezuelans are in a serious damaging humanitarian crisis; something needs to be done.

In January 2021, I had the opportunity to visit Bogota DC, the capital of Colombia. Like any other country and in Latin America, Colombia has been hard-hit by the pandemic. The economic, social, and human consequences of the tremendous political and social conditions of the last three years, were aggravated by the 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic and its known consequences. Under the pandemic, however, lies a much deeper crisis, and yes, and imported one.

Colombia hosts approximately two million Venezuelans, most of them as illegal immigrants. This story happened in the middle of January 2021, also in the middle of the second peak (of highest registered positive cases of Covid-19, as well as the highest occupancy of ICU beds in Bogota DC). This city, according to the latest official census, host more than 8 million people, and because of this, sometimes Bogota can feel a little bit crowded. On that basis, I could not get a taxi, and because Uber left Colombia around a year ago -because of the lack of guarantees for the company and the Uber drivers-, getting a private ride was out of the question. Having no other option, I took a bus. This journey was rather long. From the very south of the city, to the very north. During this time, a Venezuelan guy, probably in the late 20-s, or early 30-s aggressively jumped into the bus to sell something. The bus driver was naturally not happy about this. However, the guy stayed. This man started telling us (the people in the bus), the story of his migration journey.

He left Venezuela because of the lack of food, money, and jobs. In Venezuela, his six kids, wife, and mother, wait for food that he sends from Colombia. Because he is an illegal immigrant, he is not allowed (or registered) to get any of benefits -if any- that his condition would allow him in Colombia. His migration journey was rather sad. He paid a ‘coyote’ to take him illegally to Colombia, by crossing a river and then entering Colombia through a forest that is controlled by the far-right wing para-military groups. In order to leave Venezuela, he and all of his family wanting to support him, sold all their furniture, that is tv, laundry machine, sofas and beds with mattresses, to put together some money so he could use in his trip.

By this time, I was wondering what he was going to sell. No one is buying anything in Colombia and in particular, in the streets. First because money scars and, second because most people are paranoid of the Covid-19. He did not seem to have anything he could sell. However, an interesting element appeared. He took out of his pocket, Venezuelan Notes: ‘Bolivars’. He explains those notes were the ones he took from his family. He also explained that he was not aware that the highest definition notes of the ‘Bolivars’ (Venezuelan currency), were literally worth nothing. Everyone could tell, he was sad, but above all, desperate, I believed that he was in an urgency of sending food to his family in Venezuela. He was offering those notes, in exchange for ANY coin that people wanted to give him.

The bus was almost full. However, only two people from the bus gave him some. I was one of those. He kept explaining that those notes were the highest definition notes in Venezuela. And that the current situation in Venezuela was caused not by President Hugo Chavez, but by Nicolas Maduro. He almost begged for some coins. I gave him the change I had, which was around the equivalent in Colombian peso ($COP) of one U.S. dollar ($1USD). He was extremely surprised, and he was also interested. So, in exchange he gave me not only the highest definition notes he had, but also, an explanation of the things that you were used to, and allowed to, buy with those notes in Venezuela. Now, in his words, they are worth not even nothing, because they weight.

He left happy. I want to believe is not because of the money he collected, rather, I believe he was happy because he was listened to. Colombians in general, are now familiar with the tough conditions of the Venezuelans. Colombians are very aware of the conditions of the ones who live in Venezuela, and also, the ones that immigrate to other countries in Latin America, and of course to Colombia.

There were several questions that I wanted to find some answers for. Including who is trying to help them under blinding light of the current pandemic. The Covid-19 sent to the shadows several humanitarian crises in different continents. As a Colombian, I see every day in the news, on tv, on social media, this Venezuelan forgotten humanitarian crisis. This time, I experienced it face to face. And I felt his story needed to be told.

Colombia is not a rich country. And the people are currently very unhappy with the government in place. The pandemic has also aggravated this unsatisfaction. Very few people expect something positive out this government. Now I wonder, what can the Venezuelans surviving in Colombia, expect from the current Colombian government?

Earlier this week (8th February 2021), it was announced by the Colombian president Ivan Duque, that almost 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants will be granted legal status. Of course, this decision is highly covered by the international community. This decision has been considered ‘Historic’ and, as an example for other countries. This decision will allow Venezuelans to register with the public institutions in Colombia in order to stay for ten more years. The decision was also qualified as “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the region for decades, by the head of the U.N. Refugee Agency Filippo Grandi.

This decision, indeed, historic, will need the support of the international community with financial aid. This also mean, that Colombia will need around 2 million more of the Covid-19 vaccines in order to cover this newly added population. The international community must keep that in mind.

Venezuelans in Colombia greatly celebrate this decision. This means they will be able and allow to work legally in Colombia, with the same conditions as any Colombian. There are allegations that employers in Colombia underpay Venezuelans because of the migration status. This decision will certainly address that. This, at the same time, brings its own challenges. However, legalizing this population is a massive step and certainly, an international example, showing that with political willingness solutions can be found to address the challenges that mass migration brings.

The international community must not forget this humanitarian act led by Colombia. The international community must not forget that Colombia will need support in securing those extra two million vaccines (Covid-19). But above all, the international community must not forget that in Venezuela a dictator, alleged President Nicolas Maduro, remain repressive, resilient, and in power.

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