On Monday, the Biden administration granted 300,000 Venezuelan migrants in the United States the possibility of temporary protected status. Last month, Colombia announced a similar move affecting upward of 1 million who have fled Venezuela’s collapse to find work, education, health care and safety in Colombia. The Estatuto Temporal de Protección para Migrantes Venezolanos (ETPV) will provide migrants access to formal employment, hospitals, schools and vaccine programs.
While other countries have moved to regularize migrant status in the past, Colombia’s ETPV comes amid a global pandemic in a post-conflict country. Colombia is second in the world for the number of internally displaced people (some 5.6 million) and struggles to reintegrate ex-combatants into society. Adding to these challenges, some sectors in Colombia have been stretched thin by massive arrivals of Venezuelan migrants over the past five years.
In our multicountry study on social stability in refugee and migrant host communities, Colombia stands out for its integrative migration policies. Consistent with other scholars, we found that rapidly evolving, migrant-friendly policies created the foundation for the ETPV. Here’s what you need to know.
How we did our research
Since 2018, we’ve analyzed migration data sets, news and policy reports and created simulation models. This research also draws on interviews with people working in local and international nonprofits, religious organizations and government (including 16 respondents in Colombia).
Our research in Colombia focused on cities in its Atlántico and Norte de Santander states, which receive large numbers of Venezuelan migrants.
Starting around 2014, Venezuelans began fleeing economic collapse and human rights abuses. Estimates suggest that by the end of 2021, the total number of globally displaced Venezuelans could reach 7 million.
It’s not just Venezuelans who cross the border
Colombians had headed to Venezuela for decades, fleeing their own civil conflict. Hundreds of thousands have now returned. During the coronavirus pandemic, when the number of Venezuelans entering Colombia slowed, or even reversed, thousands of migrants still made their way in.
Government policies were geared initially toward Colombian returnees. Analyzing 113 migration policies issued by Colombia between 2015 and 2020, we find the precursors to the ETPV.
From 2017 to 2020, Colombia issued a series of special permits to stay in the country, known as Permiso Especial de Permanencia, or PEP. There have been nine versions of PEP with different qualification criteria, renewable for two years at a time. This initial pathway to stability still left almost 1 million people without documentation to work, access health care or live legally in Colombia, out of the more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants in the country.
Under the current road map, many more Venezuelan migrants — including those arriving through official entry points for the next two years — will qualify for ETPV and will be able to secure legal residency for 10 years. This means regularized migrants will be able to access banks, get an education and work for wages similar to those of Colombians.
What might ETPV mean for Colombia?
Colombia’s overburdened health-care sector should see some relief. As in the United States, health care in Colombia is linked to employment or government subsidies. Venezuelans seeking health care have taxed emergency rooms and driven up the debt for many hospitals, particularly in border cities.
Our interviews with two nongovernmental organizations revealed that medical NGOs provide primary care for migrants, but surgery and complicated procedures require hospitals. The surge in demand for health care has stretched hospital resources and resulted in migrants being turned away from emergency rooms. Under ETPV, migrants will have access to formal employment as well as government-subsidized access to preventive care and other medical services, relieving the financial burden on hospitals.
But not all Colombians support expanded services
At the same time, there are indications that tensions may be on the rise. Jobs, schools and health services will take some time to expand to accommodate the newly regularized population’s needs. But the ETPV paves the way for the Colombian government to mobilize funding and address security concerns.
Helping migrants navigate the PEP process thus far has required coordination of government and international agencies, legal clinics and small NGOs created by Venezuelans in Colombia, like De Pana que Si, Fuvadis and Mujeres Sin Fronteras. Universidad del Norte’s legal clinic, for instance, established “brigades” in 2017 to provide legal advice to migrants and returnees without access to other legal services. These brigades now provide services in seven locations in Barranquilla and Puerto Colombia.
Consistent messaging from the government and its agencies will be essential for both migrants and citizens, our research suggests. This messaging can help dispel rumors about ETPV — like whether migrants gained the right to vote with temporary protection status (which is not the case).
Could the Colombia model work elsewhere?
What motivated this large-scale regularization of migrants? The Colombian government claimed it was empathy for its neighbors as well as concerns about economic and labor market regulation and safety. Accepting that Venezuelan migrants are here to stay, the new system will make the registration process simpler and more accessible. It’s a huge move because the Venezuelan crisis in Colombia has been chronically underfunded, and schools, housing and health care have struggled to meet needs.
Colombia’s government argues the plan guarantees basic human rights and opens the door for economic development that could benefit all of Colombia. Will this model challenge assumptions about “safe and orderly migration” in wealthier countries? Colombia may be setting a global example, and it will be important to watch how its plan unfolds.
Jose J. Padilla (@jojpa) is a research associate professor in the Storymodeler research group (@storymodelers) at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Erika Frydenlund (@ErikaFrydenlund) is a research assistant professor in the Storymodeler research group (@storymodelers) at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Note: This research is funded by grant number N000141912624 by the Office of Naval Research through the Minerva Research Initiative; none of the views reported in the study are those of the funding organization. Interview transcription and analysis support was provided by Lia Castillo, Liss Romero and Lydia Sa.