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Opinion As Colombia welcomes fleeing Venezuelans, children bear the heaviest burden

More than 1 million Venezuelans have fled across the border into Colombia in the past two years. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Caroline Kennedy is an overseer with the International Rescue Committee. Sarah K. Smith is the IRC’s senior director of education.

The world was caught by surprise a couple of weeks ago as demonstrators flooded the streets of Venezuela. But the truth is, this was not a surprise — Venezuela’s political and economic systems have been collapsing for the past four years. As a result, 3 million peoplenearly 10 percent of the population — have left what was once the wealthiest country in South America. This is triple the number of Syrian refugees who have moved to Europe and larger than any other refugee crisis happening today.

Remarkably, neighboring Colombia has opened its borders to receive them — at the rate of nearly 40,000 a day. Most buy food or medicine and return to Venezuela, but every day 5,000 decide to stay in Colombia or other South American countries. While more than a million Venezuelans have crossed into other countries, the highest number — approximately 1.2 million — now live in Colombia, which already has 7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), the world’s highest number, as a result of a decades-long civil war.

Throughout this crisis, here’s what the headlines have not captured: an entire generation of children facing severe trauma. One of the particular tragedies of the Venezuelan exodus is that the number of family separations — parents separated from their children — is five times higher than in most other refugee situations. If we want to prevent a continued spiral downward, it is time for the international community to make children — their education, health and safety — part of its first response in every humanitarian crisis. Colombia is the place to start.

As it has opened its borders, Colombia has provided Venezuelan refugees access to its health care and education systems. Yet the numbers are too big for Colombian communities to meet this challenge alone. Colombia’s exemplary commitment deserves global recognition. More importantly, it represents a unique opportunity for the international donor community to step up its support for an integrated approach to children and families that will have both life-saving consequences and long-term impact.

During our visit to the border town of Cúcuta two weeks ago, we had the chance to speak with children and families participating in the International Rescue Committee’s humanitarian programs. Children we met are experiencing multiple traumas. They are hungry and scared. They are often sick and malnourished. Many have been separated from their families and have missed months or years of school.

Despite Colombia’s generous policies, roughly half of Venezuelan children living in the country are not in school. Colombia simply can’t cope with the vast numbers coming across the border. We spoke to local officials who are begging for help. Teachers need additional resources to integrate so many new students, and parents fortunate enough to find a classroom for their children can’t afford uniforms, supplies and transportation. Venezuelan kids described being bullied by Colombian students — yet they want to go to school because they know education is their only chance at a better life.

The power of education to protect children and help them heal during a crisis is well-documented. Research shows that, when children experience severe and prolonged adversity, their brain development is disrupted, making it harder for them to learn and grow into productive members of society.

Research also shows that children are resilient. They can recover when offered a stable and secure environment. Schools are often the only place where refugee children are safe and can have a sense of hope. And these children are desperate for the chance to learn. As 15-year-old Urimare told us, “It’s not easy, but I am going to school with all the effort in the world.”

Despite the fact that education is a fundamental human right, according to the United Nations, it is rarely a humanitarian priority. Only 2 percent of humanitarian assistance worldwide goes to education — in Colombia, the amount is less than 1 percent, less than any other sector. This must change.

Education is a lifeline, not a luxury. We can’t continue to sacrifice generations of children while we wait for political solutions to intractable conflicts. In Colombia, we have a chance to get this right. Working with communities in Colombia, the international humanitarian community can create a model for future assistance, a system where refugee and local children — Colombians and Venezuelans — can learn and grow together to build a prosperous future for Latin America.

Read more:

Provash Budden: It’s time for the world to stand with Venezuelan refugees

Jackson Diehl: Can Latin America handle Venezuela’s collapse without the U.S.?

Chris Murphy and Ben Rhodes: Democrats should stand for democracy in Venezuela — and democratic values in America

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends