Colombia’s Response to the Venezuelan Refugee Crisis

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela is currently undergoing a period of intense poverty, political unrest and economic decline. Crippled by both falling oil prices, that account for a large share of the nation’s exports, and government mismanagement, basic goods and services are often scarce. Conditions have driven millions of people to flee the country. The number of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia alone is estimated to have increased by one million in the past year. The Colombian government, International Community and nongovernmental organizations all play a pivotal role in combating this rapidly growing crisis.

A History of the Venezuelan Crisis

Venezuela’s decline has been in the making for years. Economically, the country is suffering the effects of a drop in global oil prices. Its economy is not very diversified, with oil exports comprising more than 95 percent of the country’s export earnings. High oil prices in the mid-2000s sustained this practice, but current revenues are not supporting Venezuela’s high demand for imports. The government of President Nicolas Maduro responded by excessively printing money that only served to raise prices on already scarce goods.

Maduro’s policies have proved polarizing. He retains a loyal group of followers, who claim that his social programs, coupled with those of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, lifted many out of extreme poverty. Economic experts, however, contend that Chavez mismanaged the vast opportunities oil reserves have. This includes purging executives of the state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and charging high fees to foreign oil companies drilling in Venezuela. Rather than improve the country’s oil extraction process or attempt to diversify the economy, Chavez, and now Maduro, pursued vast social programs while leaving Venezuela vulnerable to economic collapse.

The situation on the ground in Venezuela is dire. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 87 percent of Venezuelans cannot afford to buy the necessary food. Desperate times also contribute to immense violence. Venezuela’s homicide rate stands at 91.8 per 100,000 residents, one of the highest in the world. Seeing no relief in sight, Venezuelans are fleeing to neighboring countries in droves.

Venezuelan Refugees in Colombia

The influx of nearly one million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia presents a pressing issue of international dimensions. The crisis is putting stress on Colombia. Social services, medicine and shelter for refugees are dwindling. An economic analysis by the Inter-American Development Bank states that Colombia will need $1.6 billion a year or 0.5 percent of total GDP to respond to the influx.

Colombia’s government is absorbing this crisis at an already tumultuous time. Questions of how to implement a recent peace accord, combating increased coca production and an economy whose growth is slowing, all await newly inaugurated President Iván Duque Márquez. One of the more pressing issues of the refugee crisis is how will these people integrate into Colombian society. Outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos granted 440,000 Venezuelans work permits and legal residency. Whether the Colombian labor market and social safety nets for those unemployed can sustain potentially millions of more refugees still remains to be seen.

International Cooperation

U.N. agencies and various nongovernmental organizations are assisting in handling the influx of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), is partnering with Colombian relief organizations to shelter, feed and medicate Venezuelan refugees. In the border region of Norte de Santander, UNHCR is working to create a new health center that will provide first aid care and family planning services to some 300 people per day.

Economically influential nations including the United States are also contributing aid. The U.S. recently pledged an additional $48 million to supplement the work of the UNHCR, Colombian nongovernmental organizations, as well as funding job creation programs for refugees. Additionally, the U.S. is pursuing legislation directly addressing the situation on the ground in Venezuela. A key component of the proposed legislation is targeting the despotic Maduro regime, pledging $15 million to support democratic actors and civil society and impose additional sanctions on the regime to return the rule of law.

Venezuela’s refugee crisis is one of the most pressing in the region and in today’s world. Not only are there over a million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia but also several hundred thousand in neighboring countries. A solution to the conflict will require assisting the host countries of refugees, as well as putting pressure on the Maduro government to ameliorate the conditions leading to such a mass exodus.

– Joseph Banish

Photo: Flickr

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