“Regular or irregular”: the dichotomy of migrants rights in Colombia

Two years ago, on a public bus in Medellín, a middle-aged man stood in front of the passengers, showing us a wad of ‘Bolívares,’ which are bank notes from Venezuela. He gave one to each person. Everybody was surprised, waiting for the “punch line.”

“The bank note I gave you does not have a price,” the man said. “The price of it is what you want to give me in exchange.”

I was shocked when he told us that with all that money, the only thing he could buy in his country was a couple of eggs. I was a bit sceptical about that story until I learned a year later of the tremendous hyperinflation that Venezuela has suffered over the years.

Recently, I was in a conversation with a civil servant in Medellín who coordinates government actions to help Venezuelan immigrants in the city. When I told her this story, she replied: “He must be an irregular one.” What do you mean? I asked.

“Irregular immigrants are those who entered the country illegally,” she replied. “Therefore, they don’t have work permits or legal documents.”

But what is “regular” in a humanitarian crisis like this? Is this term doing justice to the vulnerability of almost a million officially reported immigrants without rights in Colombia? Or is this political discriminatory approach giving off a xenophobic message to the Colombian population?

The magnitude of the challenge

Hearing the Venezuelan accent in Colombia is now part of the soundscape. This is not surprising considering about twenty percent of its population has left the country (almost 5.5 million people) and Colombia has hosted more than a third of them.

Colombia is the country with the most Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the world, with more than 8.3 million due to the long-lasting armed civil conflict that has exacerbated the rural-urban exodus to cities. Now 84.5% of Colombians live in urban locations. In Medellín for instance, one in five inhabitants is a forcibly displaced person. In addition, over 87,000 Venezuelan immigrants have been reported in the city, at least according to official estimates. Most share precarious living conditions with IDPs in marginal settlements.

These figures not only speak about the dimension of the humanitarian crisis, but, also, raises serious discussions of the “right to the city,” such as accessibility to services and employment. For instance, most Venezuelan immigrants cannot access the public bicycle system EnCicla or the cheaper transportation options in the Metro system, because they do not have the required documentation.

A fragile solution without a clear path

On February 8, the national government announced the new Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPS, in Spanish), which seeks to “regularise” the “irregular” immigrants from Venezuela and to provide legal documents to work and access education and health services for 10 years. This will also cover (only) “regular” migrants that arrive to Colombia within the next two years.

The ETPS has been internationally praised for its humanitarian gesture—yet I am not convinced by a president that has not, until now, engaged with human rights concerns. Looking closely, it seems like a political move to clean up his image after previous xenophobic declarations. And a convenient one at that, because, as explained in a conversation with expert Ronal Rodríguez*, what were the options that the national government had to control Venezuelan migration? On one side, they could enact controlling policies, which are very expensive and impossible to operate in a 2219-km geographically challenging border, controlled in great part by criminal organisations. And on the other, integrating policies were available; a humanitarian approach and one better for counteracting the current levels of urban violence and crime due to the disadvantageous situation of immigrants (i.e., job access).

When I revisited the ETPS, I saw that its implementation is still problematic. The ETPS does not go beyond a tool for documenting the population, which already concerns human rights advocates. How is the personal data collected from immigrants going to be used? Moreover, in the current Covid-related circumstances, granting massive work permits to immigrants under increasing unemployment rates without a clear plan for employment generation is very worrying for the exacerbation of existing violence and xenophobia.

The ETPS looks like a reactive policy rather than a smart strategy. The final version was released just one week after the draft was published, allowing very little time for feedback from local experts, who state that only some (and not the crucial ones) of their recommendations were considered.

Broadly speaking, the ETPS leaves more questions than answers. There is not budgetary nor institutional capacity to undertake a migratory agenda like this. Therefore, the route of work is blurred. Indeed, one of the main concerns for policymakers is the general lack of information around Venezuelan immigration.

For instance, the 2018 census showed that Colombia had 400,000 undocumented immigrants from Venezuela, while the authorities alleged 200,000. It was a surprise for the national government but, according to experts, the figure was very likely to be higher because the surveys were awkwardly conducted. Many of them were done during working hours when most of the population was not at home. Also, due to their de-territorialised condition, Venezuelans have become nomadic and very frequently move between locations where they see a chance for better living conditions.

So, this aspect made the ETPS fragile due to the possible surprises in numbers that could rupture the political “commitment”. In the ETPS, the Colombian government has reserved its rights to end it at any moment.

One of the main challenges will be for the most vulnerable “irregular” immigrants. Some ambiguities of the ETPS need to be resolved soon for them. It says that to obtain legal documents, they must provide an “ideal” proof of residency in Colombia by January 31st, 2021. What does “ideal” mean? How is this going to work in practice? Considering that this population cannot access social security, open a bank account, or sign a tenancy lease for their homes, this is perplexing.

The ETPS seems like an abrupt reaction from President Duque, who has, in this gesture, passed from villain to hero. The experience with the ongoing, unattended “post-conflict” agenda in Colombia left a lot of scepticism regarding real humanitarian commitment by the government. Rather, it seems like yet another president looking for international recognition while the country continues to bleed.


* Project researcher on "This is not a border, this is a river" of the Venezuelan Observatory of the Faculty of International, Political and Urban Studies of the Universidad del Rosario, Colombia.