For decades, Colombia has seen more emigration than immigration. But now the tables have turned and the country is an increasingly appealing place to live – especially for thousands of fleeing Venezuelans. But is it ready to deal with this influx of people? We speak to some of the those who have moved here to find out about their experiences.
“Venezuela is used to dealing with immigrants. For Colombia, this is new,” says Mónica Parada, who fled from the insecurity that now dominates life in Caracas with her six-year-old son.
She is one of many Venezuelans in Bogotá I spoke to. who is grateful for the opportunity to start anew, but is finding things challenging. Despite the shared language, Mónica thinks it will be very difficult for her to integrate into the unfamiliar culture of Bogotá. Like some Colombians from outside the capital, she finds bogotanos very reserved.
Nevertheless, she is very happy to have found a safe place for her son to grow up. “The first time I took my son to the supermarket in Bogotá, he honestly asked why there were so many different packages of toilet paper,” she explains. “He is used to seeing empty shelves. I didn’t want him to think that is normal.”
The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has spurred a wave of emigration. Neighbouring Colombia is the logical destination for many, especially as it seems more stable politically and economically. According to Migración Colombia, 470,000 Venezuelans have entered the country – both legally and illegally – and many of them chose to settle in Bogotá.
The government has responded by introducing the PEP, a special permit allowing Venezuelans to stay and work in Colombia for two years. By the time the application window closed at the end of October, 68,000 Venezuelans had received the permit.
According to the survey ‘Bogotá Cómo Vamos’, published in November 2017, 78% of bogotanos think the city should help the newcomers. Citizens were asked about all aspects of living in the capital, including what the authorities should do regarding the influx of Venezuelans.
However, despite good intentions and efforts like the PEP, Venezuelans in Bogotá still face hardship. While there is a will to help, social, historical and economic factors are getting in the way.
Freddy Varella entered Colombia about a month before we spoke. The 38-year-old is rather pessimistic about his future and has found integration difficult. “I’ve asked the way a few times,” he says. “But when people hear I am Venezuelan, they get scared and don’t want to help. The same thing happens when I apply for jobs.”
Unemployment has been rising in Colombia – hitting 8.4% in November, something Freddy, who is an experienced English teacher, is very aware of. “It’s hard for a Colombian to find work, let alone a Venezuelan,” he says.
“I am just one of thousands of unemployed Venezuelan migrants in Bogotá, and bogotanos make us feel like we are not one of them. I am very grateful that I was allowed to enter the country, but I am very unhappy at the same time.” Freddy’s wife and daughter are waiting at the border, but until he gets a job there is not enough money for them to come.
His story is not unusual. Many of those I spoke to are grateful for the new chance they have, but find it difficult to settle in and struggle with a perceived lack of openness in society. Alleged bogotano ‘aloofness’ and the difficulty of finding work are mentioned repeatedly.
In August 2017, mayor Enrique Peñalosa said that he wanted to help Venezuelans since their country received Colombians for years. “We should not perceive immigrants as a cost, but as enriching us,” he said, “some Venezuelans come with their savings and want to work.”
Readers who have followed the migration crisis in Europe will recognise the disparity between politicians’ words and the realities of providing homes and employment for the new arrivals. Of course, the poorest in terms of money and connections are the most open to exploitation.
Irianys Pérez slept rough for five days in Bogotá before the Fundación de Atención al Migrante, a non-profit organisation taking care of migrants, offered her shelter. Without food or money, she and her husband were trying to find work before their children joined them.
“My husband found work. But after five days of working, they said there was no more work for him and as it had been a trial period, they were not obliged to pay him. He left without a peso,” Irianys says, adding, “Since Colombians are not used to dealing with immigrants, it will be harder for Venezuelans […] to find work here.”
Until recently, there have been relatively low levels of immigration to Colombia, in part due to the conflict and violence – and also, as Camila Esguerra Muelle, a researcher at the Universidad de los Andes explains, strict rules inherited from the Spanish Empire.
Now, the country is receiving immigrants not only from Venezuela but from across the world – attracted by the prospect of peace and the improving economy.
Esguerra Muelle labels the cold reception Venezuelans experience as “historically constructed xenophobic attitudes.” She explains that during the first half of the twentieth century, Colombia’s immigration policy was openly prejudiced. Indeed, a 1922 law stated: “Elements whose ethnic, organic or social background are inconvenient for nationality and for the better development of the race are prohibited from entering the country.”
She points out that European colonisation built racism into many aspects of life – from scientific discourse to social norms – and says that this colonial hangover still influences people’s thinking.
Current immigration policy is based on more recent legislation emphasising human rights and equality. A number of NGOs and social organisations actively work to help migrants.
Aside from Venezuela’s troubles, Colombia is itself in a vulnerable post-conflict period and facing its own economic challenges, not least due to the collapse of oil prices in 2014-2016.
Migration is a major issue worldwide, and one with links to economics, health, trade, education and employment. President Santos is clearly aware of this. Speaking in London at the end of last year, he said Colombia wants to be generous, but the situation is creating a burden on the health and education systems.
The government’s initial response is praiseworthy, but the lesson drawn from Europe is that to successfully receive higher numbers of migrants the country will need to find ways to help them build lives here and thus contribute to the economy.
This is a challenge anywhere, and even more so in Colombia, which has over seven million internally displaced people and many rural areas are still plagued by violence. The country now also faces the task of creating jobs for demobilised FARC fighters and the numerous other financial pressures associated with constructing peace.
Venezuela – and the arrival of its citizens – will surely be high on voters’ agendas in the upcoming elections. Another lesson to be learnt from Europe is that migration can be a political hot potato, especially if the discourse strays into the realms of nationalism and xenophobia.
While there are comparisons to be drawn with Europe, Venezuelan immigrants do not face a high degree of culture shock compared to migrants in Europe who come from very different linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
History, politics and statistics are all significant, but it’s easy to forget the simplest and most important factor: it is hard to move to a new country and start a new life from scratch, and those who do so need all the help they can get.
By Ellen Debackere. This article initially appeared in the print edition 50 of The Bogotá Post.