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Colombia's President On Amnesty For Venezuelans: 'We Want To Set An Example'

Colombian President Iván Duque unveiled a program last month that will allow undocumented Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years.
Colombian President Iván Duque unveiled a program last month that will allow undocumented Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years.

Colombian President Iván Duque has won praise from the Biden administration, the United Nations and Pope Francis for his decision last month to provide temporary legal status to undocumented migrants from neighboring Venezuela. But according to Duque, what's been lacking from the international community is money to pay for a crisis that's similar in scope to the outflow of Syrian refugees in the 2010s.

Of the 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled an authoritarian regime and a collapsing economy in their homeland, some 2 million have settled in Colombia. About half of these newcomers to Colombia are undocumented and Duque's new policy will allow them to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years. Duque said it will also provide migrants with better access to education, health care and legal employment.

Colombia's open-door approach contrasts with harder-line policies in nearby Peru, Ecuador and Chile where — amid rising xenophobia — governments have put in place visa requirements and other barriers to Venezuelan migrants.

Venezuelan migrants rest as they wait to receive food and medicines from members of the Red Cross on a highway in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela last month.
Schneyder Mendoza / AFP via Getty Images
Venezuelan migrants rest as they wait to receive food and medicines from members of the Red Cross on a highway in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela last month.

But it's a costly strategy. Duque said his government spends more than $1 billion a year on Venezuelan migrants with just a trickle of the funds coming from the international community. Compared to the spending on the refugee crises in Syria and South Sudan, Duque said that relatively little money has come from foreign donors for resettling Venezuelan migrants.

Duque spoke more about the challenges of the Venezuelan refugee crisis in an interview with Ari Shapiro on NPR's All Things Considered. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why Colombia adopted an open-door migration policy

We want to set an example and [be] a reference that can be adopted by other countries. We want to demonstrate that although we're not a rich country, we can do something that is humanitarian, that is fraternal, but at the same time is an intelligent and sound migration policy.

We have built a brotherhood with Venezuela. [During Colombia's drug-fueled guerrilla war] there were hundreds and thousands of Colombians that went to Venezuela and found an opportunity. I believe that once there's a recovery in Venezuela and once people go back to Venezuela they will always remember those who gave them support in Colombia. And that will strengthen our relations like never before.

On the benefits of temporary protective status

Allowing migrants to be formalized helps us build a more equitable society. Once you regularize, people can open bank accounts, buy houses, and can work legitimately. Venezuelan migrants contribute in the coffee sector as [coffee-pickers]. We have 200,000 Venezuelans in Colombia contributing to social security.

[Migrants] don't stay for a year nor two or three or five. They likely stay for more than a decade. So it's better to do things intelligently. I think that approach, if other countries embrace it, will work.

On international aid for the Venezuelan refugee crisis

We have been paying more than $1 billion per year attending to migrants in Colombia. [So] we want to raise this issue before the world and mobilize more donor capacity. Venezuela is the major migration crisis in the world.

What has been pledged and disbursed in the case of Syria is more than $3,000 per migrant. When we look at South Sudan migration crisis, we're talking about more than $1,600 [per migrant]. And when we think about the [Venezuelan] crisis, it has been barely $316.

We know we're in the midst of COVID-19. We all know everybody has fiscal constraints. But we have to at least fulfill the commitments that have been made in donor conference around the world.

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