Venezuelan migrants in Colombia: Is humanitarian aid enough?

By Juan S, Brizneda

Colombia has a very special footprint in terms of migration. While for reasons like their long internal armed conflict it has historically produced a significant number of migrants (1), Colombia is also right now the second country with the most amount of refugees in the world (UNHCR,2019).

Since 2015, on account of the economic crisis that Venezuela is undergoing, more than 5 million of Venezuelans have fled the country. In view of both countries’ proximity, 70 % of said migrants have gone through Colombia, considering the latter as a final destination or as stopover on the way to another country such as Ecuador or Peru. (Migración Colombia, 2020)

Thus far, there are 1.7 million Venezuelans in Colombia (Migración Colombia). However, the 1.7 million number does not represent the real dimensions of the migration flows in the country. Figures are sometimes misguiding. Apart from the migrants with the intention to stay in Colombia, there are also transit (500.000 per year), pendular (back-and-forth) (4.2 million (2) ), and returned migrants (3) (around 500.000).  (Migración Colombia, 2020)

This is where it gets tricky. There is a “pressure index” of around 8 million people that are demanding services to the Colombian state coming from a crisis that did not exist before 2015; that accounts for over the entire population of Colombia’s capital, Bogota. However, the complexity grows even further. This crisis has arrived at the same time that a post-peace agreement process was happening in the country after the Colombian government and the rebel forces of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an accord in 2016 to put an end to a long term internal armed conflict. Therefore, Colombia was not only living its largest migration crisis in history as a host country , but also experiencing its biggest historic peace implementation plan that required tons of public and economic efforts.

This is where the humanitarian situation attracts special attention. Colombia does not have enough resources to address the entirety of the crisis, so many Venezuelans in the country are in urgent need of food, health, and WASH assistance. Consequently, many migrants are still in an irregular migration status, pushing them away from having access to the regular ways of securing these services or rights. In fact, their irregular condition has increased the chances of them being abused or exploited, especially by armed groups  (ACAPS, 2020). 

Considering the large numbers of migrants, plus the already existent vulnerable population in Colombia, a solely humanitarian approach clearly falls short. There must be a bridge between humanitarian affairs and development. In that way, the migrants will improve their access to basic services, hence a better life, and at the same time, the host country and community will experience the positive effects coming from migration. For instance, the IMF reported that thanks to the Venezuelan migration in Colombia, the country has experienced a positive economic growth (IMF, 2019).

The mentioned bridge between humanitarian solutions and development can be better built if Venezuelan migrants are integrated into the host communities. A process that, if compared to other migration crises, could happen more easily due to the fact that Venezuelans and Colombians share a lot of similar (not to say identical) cultural features (language, religion, etc.). For instance, cultural differences are one of the reasons why Syrians’ integration in Europe has been more challenging.

Nevertheless, even though the Colombian government and the humanitarian sector have made efforts to regularize the migrant population, the majority of Venezuelans in Colombia are still in an irregular condition. So, how can the humanitarian sector help with integrating migrants, thus encouraging a development approach?

The answer starts with localization! In addition to changing the mindset of the help provided from the short-term to the long-term, meaning that apart from giving water to a migrant family, you show them how to access the regular routes of services. There must be a decentralized way in which INGOs empower local actors who have a better contextual understanding and local knowledge to do this job.

Localization brings several benefits to ensure what humanitarian aid intends to do in the first place. To start with,  working with local actors guarantees sustainability and predictability before, during, and after a humanitarian disaster. Local actors are also part of the communities and besides knowing what communities need, they can continue working on the matter once international actors have ended their response.  Local actors offer better preparedness as they are already on the field; in case of emergency they would show a more rapid and coordinated response. In addition, local actors can be more held accountable by the local population, as the communities know them. (IASC, 2016).

But how to accomplish localization from an international humanitarian organization’s perspective? Advocating for local efforts without overwhelming local structures and by providing long-term investment with quality economic resources to build sustainability; helping to build a local humanitarian infrastructure by sharing expertise and training local staff as they have an added value in terms of local knowledge and contextual understanding; including local actors as leaders in international humanitarian structures or at least assuring that locals are included in Humanitarian Country Teams (IASC,2016).

 

In Colombia, INGOs could even support local initiatives that are not only trying to offer short term responses to the lack of basic needs, but long-term solutions to integrate the Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. An example of the latter is: “Entre Parceros y Panas (4)”, a network that attempts to encourage inclusiveness by developing an alternative approach and narrative towards migration. Communication is important to integrate migrants due to the fact that in many cases, the regularization of Venezuelans does not happen because they do not even know how to do it. 

It is just logical to think that teams conformed by Colombians and Venezuelans have better takes on what both communities need than international actors. What INGOs need to figure out is how to play a role on projecting and amplifying these voices and initiatives that in the majority of cases do not count with any economic support. If, for example, humanitarian organization focused and helped on these matters as a subsidiary actor, they most likely would not have to perpetuate  a paternalistic structure where they have to provide food, healthcare, etc. to crisis-affected people for eternity.  An important part of localization is also to pass from a reactionary approach, to a preemptive one.

Nonetheless, according to a joint study by Oxfam and the Feinstein International Center: “the most common barrier cited by Colombian local key informants and focus group participants was the unwillingness or inability of the broader humanitarian system to reckon with the structural causes of humanitarian crises. This artificial barrier has the effect of distancing local actors from the formal humanitarian system that international actors and government subscribe to” (Oxfam & FIC, 2020). 

Without the local knowledge of the actors in crisis-affected countries, humanitarian’s work will always be incomplete. Therefore, accountability becomes more relevant than ever; listening to why there is a gap between international and local actors, and finding ways to shorten or eradicate that gap would not only get the job done better, but it will really represent a change for people affected by crisis.

The whole development approach reopens the questions of the future of the humanitarian sector. Even though there is a general consensus on the fact that humanitarian services should offer not only reactionary assistance, but a more development-oriented aid, reality shows otherwise. The humanitarian sector’s wallet unfortunately does not cover its ambitions. While the idea of how aid must be delivered has been changing over the last few years, the economic structure remains the same (there is even the fear that the amount of aid provided will shrink due to recent political events).

On top of that, aid funds are extremely concentrated and are only given to a few actors. Actually, to get to know precisely how much of the global humanitarian funds go directly to local and national actors is quite complex: there is too little transparency and too much missing data to get to a definite conclusion (Oxfam & FIC, 2020). The most recent Global Humanitarian Assistance report states that local and national NGOs received 2.1 percent of all NGO funding in 2019. (Development Initiatives, 2020).

If the antiquated structures that have existed for so long without a major change, are not enough to respond to the humanitarian challenges of today, then there is the need of a serious restructure.  Crises like the one happening in Colombia with the Venezuelan migration, that it is even more worrisome because of COVID-19, could certainly benefit from a better and most needed humanitarian assistance.

There are 1.7 million Venezuelans with the intention to stay in Colombia (and many more in the country as expressed before), and once the immediate humanitarian needs are covered, local organizations will continue addressing the day-to-day challenges of integrating migrants into the host communities. International aid usually leaves, the problem stays, and then local NGOs are the poorly funded front liners who need to be innovative to cope up with the problems that INGOs (even if they went there solely for that purpose) did not even address in the first place. 

(1) For example, as of 2020, more than 5 million Colombians are living outside their home country.

(2) Figure that corresponds to the amount of official documents that the Colombian government has given to Venezuelans who live in Venezuela but cross the border regularly to Colombia in order to work.

(3) Colombian migrants that went to Venezuela years before who decided to go back to Colombia. This term includes the children of Colombians that were born and raised in Venezuela, and even the children of those children. 

(4) “Parcero “is a common slang word used in Colombia that means “friend, pal, buddy”, and “Pana” is the same thing, but in Venezuelan slang.

References:

ACAPS (2020) Colombia. Venezuelan Refugees.

Development Initiatives (2020) Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.

Entre Panas y Parceros (2020) Objetivos.

IMF, (2019) El Directorio Ejecutivo del FMI Concluye la Consulta del Artículo IV con Colombia correspondiente a 2020.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2016) Localisation: As Local as Possible, as International as Necessary

Migración Colombia. (2020). Radiografía: venezolanos en Colombia. Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores.

MSF, (2019). Los migrantes venezolanos en Colombia atraviesan una crisis desatendida.

The New Humanitarian (2015) Where is all the money going? The Humanitarian Economy.

Oxfam & The Feinstein International Center (2020) Anchored in Local Reality: Case Studies on Local Humanitarian Action from Haiti, Colombia, and Iraq.

Seele, A & Bolter, J (2020) An Uneven Welcome: Latin American and Caribbean Responses to Venezuelan and Nicaraguan Migration. Migration Policy Institute.