By Michael Berman
Facing severe inflation, food shortages, and a collapsing economy, over 3.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country. And according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2019, this will climb to 5.4 million.
Colombia, which shares a 2,253-kilometer (km) border with Venezuela, has received the lion’s share of migrants and is weathering this storm by proactively integrating Venezuelans into the domestic economy. For instance, the Colombian government has granted over 400,000
To assess the governments’ and humanitarian networks’ response to this crisis, I recently traveled to Cúcuta, Colombia. The city of Cúcuta sits on the Western border of the Venezuelan town of San Antonio. And despite the city traditionally relying on international trade, currency exchanges, and gasoline, it now serves as an arrival point for hundreds of thousands of immigrants crossing the Simón Bolivar International Bridge.
While some immigrants receive passport stamps and PEP application instructions at the checkpoint—many do not. A family resting outside the Centro de Migraciones, the only publicized refugee shelter in Cúcuta, told us that despite using an official border crossing, they did not receive a stamp in their passport nor any form of temporary identification. Instead, they are stuck and are trying to save enough cash to rent an apartment.
With these issues in mind, there have been some efforts at mustering an international response. An example of this is the recently unveiled Refugee and Migrant Response Plan, a joint effort by the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and South American and Caribbean countries. Yet, despite these recent efforts, with medical supply trucks burning at the Venezuelan border, there is scant evidence sufficient aid will arrive anytime soon.
In addition to having little international help, it is clear that the necessary infrastructure is not in place. As Venezuelan’s cross the Simón Bolivar International Bridge, they are not only welcomed by the bustling immigrant neighborhood of Villa Del
This group, which provides medical treatment to new migrants, is loosely organized by allies of Juan Gauidó, but it is unclear from whom it receives funding. And while immigrants could use another checkpoint to receive vaccinations, the only other location that has similar capabilities primarily serves commercial vehicles.
Immigration is straining Cúcuta’s resources, giving it the third highest unemployment
Another unfortunate immigrant, forced to work in the informal economy, is Leo, who arrived last year from Caracas and holds a job as a night security guard. Considering himself lucky after a stint in the Venezuelan military, he found work in Cúcuta guarding houses, receiving Colombian peso (COP) 1,000 (USD 0.32) per house per night. With that income, he splits a USD 162 apartment with his friend and his friend’s mother.
Effects of military action
Any military conflict could ruin Colombia’s tenuous efforts at maintaining stability. Despite a 2016 peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, terrorist and paramilitary groups, like the National Liberation Army, occupy large swaths of territory on the eastern border of Colombia. In the event of military action or Venezuela becoming a failed state, rapidly formed evacuation routes would cross through these areas.
The impact of traversing these areas is hard to predict, but most likely, newcomers to the region would face
Unfortunately, the political consequences of taking action are dangerous for South America and the US. A populist backlash in South American democracies against immigration, similar to Europe and the US, could strain the Mercosur Residence Agreement or even the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) itself. This is problematic, as increased South American integration strengthens the entire Americas block and allows the US to focus its resources on threats further abroad.
The US and the international community must tread lightly. Currently, there is an opening to replace President Maduro with the young and scandal-free Juan Guaidó. However, any military action to make this a reality would further destabilize Colombia and the rest of the Americas. Fearing this outcome, the US may prefer a weak authoritarian leader, such as Maduro, rather than face the cascading problems that would stem from armed conflict and regime change.
Michael Berman currently resides in Cartagena, Colombia and is a proud graduate of The George Washington University. Additional reporting was provided by Gustavo Valiente Mosquera with special thanks to Cheo Ferreira Saenz for lending his support.
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Valiente