Helping Colombia Weather a Crisis
AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Helping Colombia Weather a Crisis
AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
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Colombians took to the streets on Nov. 21 to protest a series of grievances. Demonstrators oppose the government’s proposed economic reforms and deplore the country’s flailing peace process. They harbor a general sense of dissatisfaction with center-right President Iván Duque. The protests reveal that Colombia is not immune to the recent wave of civil unrest that is destabilizing Latin America. Beyond the implications for the Duque administration, the growing unrest should serve as a wakeup call to the United States and the international community about the need to remedy its insufficient support for Colombia, which is dealing with the most dramatic refugee crisis in the region’s history. Failing to do so will likely lead to further polarization and instability in Colombia.

Colombia has been left to bear the brunt of the Venezuelan migration crisis, but the developing country’s humanitarian response is woefully underfunded. The international community has donated a fraction of the funding that it has disbursed to address the Syrian refugee crisis. In a plea to the world, Colombia’s foreign minister highlighted this disparity by pointing out that relief funds from the international community equated to $68 per migrant, compared to the more than $500 per migrant donated to support refugees from Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar.

Fundraising levels for the United Nation’s Regional Response Plan have reached just half of the goal set out for 2019. A recent effort to bolster these funds, including a major international conference in Brussels this October, saw little in the way of new funding from the European Union, whose response to the Venezuelan crisis is dwarfed by its past support for similar humanitarian efforts. The Duque administration has reallocated funds from other policy priorities and shifted costs to already strained local communities and municipalities, but it needs further international support to fully address the crisis.

Colombia has absorbed more than 1.4 million Venezuelan refugees, yet there has been minimal resulting social unrest targeting Venezuelan migrants. A sense of solidarity and gratitude for Venezuela’s past openness to Colombians fleeing the country’s armed conflict has spared refugees from public frustrations. Notably, candidates in Colombia’s recent regional elections did not use the subject of Venezuelan migrants as a political cudgel, despite the clear potential for abuse. Indeed, Colombian political parties across the ideological spectrum pledged to reject xenophobia in their political campaigns.

However, Colombia’s admirable support for Venezuelan refugees does not mean that the status quo is sustainable. The costs of the refugee crisis have repercussions in other aspects of Colombian politics and society, leading to higher levels of public frustration. Funding shortfalls from the international community leave Colombia to perform a perilous balancing act between public services, the costly implementation of a troubled peace accord, and support for Venezuelan migrants.

The consequences are clear: Local public services including healthcare, education, transportation, and law enforcement are stretched thin and are unable to meet the increased demands resulting from the influx of refugees. Homeless Venezuelan families are now a fixture in Colombian cities. Many desperate Venezuelan migrants are vulnerable to exploitation by criminal organizations, forced into prostitution, gangs, and even transnational criminal organizations and guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Army. Colombia’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is also suffering from the scarcity of resources, undermining implementation and leading to rising anger from supporters of the accord who see this as a purposeful effort by Duque.

Below the surface, the failure to properly fund a response to the crisis is also taking a toll on the Colombian public’s sense of solidarity with Venezuelan migrants. Polling points to rising frustration toward the government’s open-door policy. One recent poll found that a record-high 62% of Colombians had an unfavorable view of Venezuelan migrants, a 13% increase from November 2018. This trend indicates the Colombian people’s dwindling solidarity with Venezuelans, which risks turning refugees into a more direct target of public grievances.   

Without proper attention to these underlying challenges -- and funding to address them -- the situation in Colombia will get worse. The United States should sharpen its efforts to secure commitments from countries in Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere to support Venezuelan refugees. This includes both humanitarian support as well as support for the restoration of democracy and stability in Venezuela. The United States should also support Colombia’s laudable stance on Venezuelan migrants by granting temporary protective status to Venezuelans in the United States. Washington’s failure to pass such a measure undermines its efforts to highlight the urgency and severity of the crisis.  

If the international community remains complacent, it should not be surprised when social unrest and division spread in Colombia.

Andrés Martínez-Fernández is a Senior Research Associate with the American Enterprise Institute’s Latin American Studies Program where he works on transnational organized crime and economic development in the Americas. The views expressed are the author's own.