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Amid multiple migrant crises, Colombia prepares to welcome Afghan refugees

Colombian President Iván Duque, center, speaks in Bogotá on Aug. 20 as Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg look on. (Presidency Of Colombia Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — When Colombia’s president announced last month that his country would temporarily welcome as many as 4,000 Afghan refugees on their way to the United States, the South American nation was once again held up as a model of generosity toward people fleeing humanitarian disasters.

President Iván Duque said the decision “unites us in the protection of human rights, the protection of women and, of course, being with our allies when they need us.” The U.S. ambassador in Colombia, Philip Goldberg, said the announcement “underscores the compassion of the Colombian people toward those in need.”

But as the country prepares to receive the Afghan families — for a temporary stay fully paid for by the United States — Colombians have described Duque’s decision less as an act of solidarity than a bid to improve his image with the United States.

And while advocates for migrants here celebrated the decision to help a refugee community in need, some were left wondering: What about Colombia’s other migrant crises?

Pope Francis said Sept. 5 that he was praying that many countries take Afghan refugees and that it is essential for young Afghans to receive an education. (Video: Reuters)

“Why in this case do we see all of this deployment, all of this coordination to serve this population, and we don’t see the same happen in other cases?” said Lucía Ramírez, coordinator of migration investigations for the Colombia-based advocacy group Dejusticia. “When there’s the political willpower to do it, we’ll do it.”

In a country with an estimated 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants, a rising number of internally displaced people, and thousands of Haitians and others passing through in an effort to reach the United States, some say the government is creating a tiered system among refugees for political reasons.

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With U.S. sponsorship, Afghan refugees are expected to be hosted primarily in hotels for three to six months before making their way to the United States, Colombian officials have said. While they won’t be allowed to work or study, they will be granted identification that will enable them to move freely in the country, will be offered coronavirus vaccines and given medical insurance — privileges rarely granted to other refugee and migrant groups in Colombia.

“I hate to say it, but it’s like refugee royalty,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “I’m sure the attitudes for Venezuelans in Colombia would probably be the same if they were paid for. … But because they don’t come with money, these refugees at least, then they’re second-class Colombian citizens.”

Failing Venezuela has hemorrhaged more than 5 million people in recent years, but the world’s second-largest group of internationally displaced people continues to be one of its most underfunded, according to the Brookings Institution. International donors spent more than $20.8 billion to address the Syrian refugee crisis through the end of 2020 — $3,150 per refugee — but the Venezuelan crisis got only $1.4 billion, or $265 per Venezuelan.

In February, Duque announced that the Colombian government would offer temporary protected status to nearly 1 million undocumented Venezuelan migrants, a move hailed as one of the most generous amnesty programs for undocumented migrants in history.

But it applies only to those who entered before Jan. 31, and Venezuelans have continued to cross the border into Colombia in high numbers, straining the country’s hospitals and economy as the pandemic fuels a steep rise in poverty. The government has said Venezuelans with the temporary protection will be eligible for the vaccine, but it’s unclear when they’ll get it — or whether the government will have the doses necessary. As of now, undocumented Venezuelans generally are not allowed to receive the vaccine.

“Temporary status doesn’t resolve people’s situations,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a Colombia human rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It just creates an underclass that is always in limbo and unsure as to whether they’re going to be able to become fully citizens of the country.”

Sánchez-Garzoli said Duque’s decision to accept the Afghans seems motivated by a desire to repair his relationship with the Biden administration after reports that members of his party helped campaign for Donald Trump in Florida in last year’s U.S. presidential election. She doubted that all of the Afghan refugees would leave Colombia after only a few months.

“That’s when we’re going to know if they have the real political will to help these people,” Sánchez-Garzoli said.

Juan Francisco Espinosa Palacios, the director of Colombia’s migration agency, described the Afghans as people with connections to the United States. He sought to distinguish them from other migrant groups in the country, saying they have not fled their homes because of economic conditions, “as in Venezuela.”

“These are people who have worked with the United States … there are professors, engineers, media professionals,” he told a news conference. “That makes the cultural and socioeconomic level quite different.”

To Ramírez, of Dejusticia, those comments implied that some migrants “are valued more than others.” They also perpetuate the belief that the Venezuelan exodus is a form of economic migration, she said, rather than a political humanitarian crisis prompted by an authoritarian regime.

How mass migration and its ripple effects are upending lives across Latin America:

Colombia has seen a surge in Haitian, Cuban and African migrants arriving near its border with Panama to cross the dangerous Darién Gap into Central America in the hope of reaching the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of Colombian citizens have fled their homes in recent years under threat from armed criminal groups. Between January and July, internal displacements in Colombia increased by 167 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. More than 400,000 people have been displaced since the 2016 peace agreement that ended the country’s five-decade civil war.

“We have to extend a hand to all human beings,” said Marino Córdoba, a legal representative for the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians. “But I would also like to see the victims that we have in the streets receive the same.”

Colombia’s role as a destination for refugees and migrants is relatively new; during its decades of civil war, millions of Colombians were displaced, and at least 1 million fled into neighboring Venezuela. Despite this history, polls and reports suggest xenophobia against Venezuelans in Colombia is rising. The mayor of Bogotá recently sparked controversy by proposing a police unit dedicated to crimes committed by migrants.

Aimara Sánchez, director of the Bogotá-based nonprofit Fraternidad Venezolana — Venezuelan Brotherhood — said the topic of the incoming Afghan refugees came up in a recent meeting. A Venezuelan colleague said, “I hope Colombians don’t have the same attitude toward them that they do toward us.”

When Venezuelans arrive in Colombia, they speak the same language — Spanish — and their cultures and cuisines are similar. “What I call an arepa, Colombians also call an arepa,” Sánchez said. How will the Afghans, who come from a different culture and language, integrate into Colombian society?

The Venezuelans in the meeting talked about what they could do to help, Sánchez said.

“What can we do as organizations, with the little that we have, to welcome them?”

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