Understanding migration as an asset: the Colombian case

By Adriana Mejía Hernández, Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs of the Republic of Colombia

The massive exodus of Venezuelan migrants is the world’s second largest migration wave and is unprecedented in the history of Latin America. Colombia, host to almost 30% of Venezuelan migrants, responded with comprehensive measures and most importantly, has approached the mass arrivals of migrants as an opportunity for development and growth. However, the lack of identity documents and irregular status of migrants are the source of many challenges to achieving an effective state response.

The Colombian case is particular. During the 1990s thousands of Colombian nationals migrated to Venezuela making Colombia the country of origin. Nonetheless, the worsening of the social and economic conditions in Venezuela caused a reversal of the migration dynamics between the two countries. As of 2015, Colombia began to receive flows of regular migration that later, in 2019, were surpassed by the number of irregular migrants crossing into national territory, through various pathways along the border, risking their lives and belongings along the way.

The dramatic circumstances that irregular migrants have to face make them more vulnerable to suffering from human rights violations, including sexual or gender-based violence, discrimination, xenophobia, labour exploitation, as well as migratory-related crimes like human trafficking or migrant smuggling. They are more likely to fall victims to criminal acts, or even, in some cases, of becoming involved themselves in criminality due to a lack of job opportunities or access to basic services.

“The lack of international financial support for the Venezuelan migration crisis is a reality. Total funding per migrant amounts to USD $3,150 per Syrian, USD $1,390 per South Sudanese, and just $265 per Venezuelan.” #DevMatters

The increased rates of irregular migrants choosing to risk their lives to seek better conditions to start over represent perhaps one of the biggest challenges. When migrants enter a country through irregular channels, the State lacks vital information about them, including their name, age and gender, as well as their needs and expectations upon arrival. Gathering information on the characteristics of migrants is thus an important tool to produce effective public policies that address this phenomenon.

Faced with the unexpected increase in irregular migratory flows, the Colombian State approached migration as an opportunity through the creation of policies and mechanisms aimed at making migrants’ lives easier, helping them find employment and enabling access to education and health care. These policies were designed with a commitment to upholding migrants’ dignity and rights. In 2018 the Colombian government adopted a guiding public policy document (CONPES in Spanish) that stated that: ‘‘despite the enormous challenges posed by migration, there are a number of benefits that migration can generate, not only for migrants who can increase their standard of living by settling in places with greater economic opportunities (Mergo, 2016), but also for the host country’’. Since then, over 24,000 children of migrant parents born in Colombia and at risk of statelessness have been granted Colombian citizenship, providing them with a real opportunity to integrate in the country.

Most recently, the adoption of a Temporary Protection Statute in Colombia, widely recognised by international authorities, regularised over 900,000 migrants, enabling them to work and access public and private services, while simultaneously allowing the Colombian State to gather information to feed into the design of more tailored public policies. The Statute also included a special focus on women, children and vulnerable families who will benefit from regular cash transfers to boost their integration into the labour market.

“More countries need to adopt the evidence-based mind-set that sees migration as a development opportunity and an asset.” #DevMatters

However, regularisation of migrants can raise concerns, mostly within host communities, as people may fear that they will see their own job opportunities or social benefits decline as a result. To counter misconceptions about migrants, the Colombian State developed a communications campaign, promoting the evidence-based view that regularising migrants will boost the country’s GDP growth as most migrants of working age will have a positive impact on their host communities, generating new skills, networks, business models and entrepreneurship.

Nonetheless, one big challenge remains: funding. The lack of international financial support for the Venezuelan migration crisis and the host countries is a reality. According to the Brookings Institution, total funding (in U.S. dollars) per migrant amounts to $3,150 per Syrian, $1,390 per South Sudanese, and just $265 per Venezuelan, based on figures for 2020. To face the dearth of funding, the Colombian Government is working to convey to the international community how much funding is needed to effectively implement the Temporary Protection Statute – one of the world’s most generous policies for migrants, through a platform called Regional Migrant and Refugee Responsive Plan (RMRP) and the Interagency Group for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM).

In sum, Colombia is addressing the current migration wave from Venezuela with comprehensive policies to change misconceptions on the negative impacts of migration, focusing on the benefits instead. Increasing migration flows are a worldwide reality and migration crises like the Venezuelan one are large-scale humanitarian crises. The international community has a key role to play by ensuring sufficient financial support and building capacity in host countries. More countries need to acknowledge this reality and adopt the evidence-based mind-set that sees migration as a development opportunity and an asset. To do so, the international community should start by addressing the obstacles that prevent countries from adopting the regularisation policies they need to support both migrants and host communities.