The images of Venezuelans protesting in the main square of Bogota, Colombia, and the evictions from the daily-rate residences (1) in Los Mártires district of the city are just the tip of the iceberg of a situation that had been simmering for years in several Colombian regions.
The government’s national quarantine decree [on March 24] has highlighted the true conditions in which immigrants live in Colombia, and the challenges of organising their social coverage.
Since the beginning of the isolation drill [in Bogota city on March 20], and now with the national quarantine, the main challenge has been how to take care of the homeless. This includes displaced or indigenous people, vulnerable families and immigrants, 90 percent of which, according to a recent census of Venezuelan migrant labour from Colombia’s state-run DANE statistics institute, have only informal employment and live from what they produce day to day.
The worries became more evident last week when, in part motivated by fake rumours on social media, Venezuelan groups headed to the Liévano City Hall Palace in Bogota and even to the mayor’s office of [the highly populated metropolitan district of] Soacha to claim social aid during the isolation period. The rallies turned into protests and some even ended in looting.
A similar scene was repeated two days later, when hundreds of immigrants, as well as Colombians, were evicted from the so-called daily-rate residences in the city centre. Many of them had not been able to pay for more than a week.
The immediate response from the local authorities was to attempt to cover some of the missing payments, but for legal reasons largely related to the non-legal status of the establishments, the promise could not be fulfilled.
The situation, which had been getting out of control, led Bogota Mayor Claudia López to state that providing social coverage for Venezuelan immigrants should not be the exclusive responsibility of the city council, despite them having covered it for many years. She went on to claim that [the federal government agency] Migration Colombia should lead efforts to offer assistance to this sector of the population.
In response, Migration Colombia’s director, Francisco Espinosa, indicated that this was the responsibility of each mayor and governor to provide coverage, but that taking the circumstances into account, they had to work together.
The spat continued when Lopez declared that the city had done its best to ensure attention to the migrants "With generosity, without a single dime from the rest of the country, [the local government] has covered health, school and food to children, and provided employment to Venezuelan families for three years with taxes from the pockets of Bogota’s residents. We asked for help from the federal government to cover the quarantine and we ended up having to pay out even more to them."
The declaration, which insisted on a greater prominence of the federal government, was called xenophobic by some. However, this confrontation concerning where responsibility for immigrant social coverage lies is only a reflection of what has been happening across the country, where resources to support vulnerable sectors in quarantine (including Venezuelans) are becoming scarcer every day.
Regardless of the debate, which, it is worth clarifying, revolves around providing social coverage for these sectors and not leaving them unprotected, the goal is to seek solutions.
For Felipe Muñoz, a presidential advisor for the immigration crisis, it would be discriminatory at this moment to think about offering differential attention to Venezuelans and Colombians, since they are all in the same condition. Similarly, in many cases (as has been evident in the evictions in Bogota) many [migrant] families include Colombian nationals or have relatives in the country.
Muñoz affirms that the issue goes deeper than social coverage during the quarantine. According to him, what is happening brings out a situation that has afflicted several regions of the country for years.
In Villa del Rosario [in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department on the Venezuelan border], for example, a health emergency has been declared due to the increase in cases of syphilis, and in the Colombian municipalities of Pamplona and Maicao [both on the same border] migrants have come to represent 30 percent of the local population and, like most, live in vulnerable conditions.
While it could be said that the tone of Mayor Lopez's words was not correct, there have been other, more controversial statements, such as that of the mayor of the central Yopal municipality, Luis Eduardo Castro, who said that he will give no resources to help the migrants, because they generate a social problem.
"I'm still standing by my position,” he told local media. “Whatever the personal consequences, I'm not going to direct any resources to the Venezuelan issue because my goal is to meet my commitments with fellow countrymen and women," he added.
For Martha Marquez, director of the principal think tank of the [Colombian private catholic] University of Javeriana, the questionable part [of the debate] is not that the tension over migrant social coverage has been coming for a long time. "The only difference now is that the tension is directed towards the federal government. The pandemic has exposed problems of poverty and precariousness for Colombians, as well as for Venezuelans who have come to settle down here in search of a new life."
In relation, presidential advisor Muñoz says that international aid has been secured for immigrants, with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the [Presidential Agency for] International Cooperation delivering 25,000 food boxes in Bogota recently. The federal government also plans to supply over 200,000 more in 40 prioritised municipalities across the country.
Muñoz explains that these actions have focused on high-impact sectors, such as Villa del Rosario, Maicao and Soacha, because the situation of immigrants less than 20 km from Bogota is much more concerning than in the capital itself since they are seen more on the street.
Authorities should not forget about providing social coverage for Venezuelan migrants, as there are more than 1.8 million in the country. The next few days will be essential not only in identifying these sectors, but also in deciding how to offer this care in the midst of the health emergency.
For Marquez, all this will require a strong effort, in which it is essential to avoid an outbreak of xenophobia.
"What I'm afraid of is that competition for resources will occur. Fear of infection will reinforce the idea that migrants are dangerous and that they are seen as a security threat for municipalities or states. It will take a strong effort to prevent bad elements from coming to the fore in this crisis scenario," she explains.
(1) Daily-rate residences or hotels are common accommodation solutions for Venezuelan migrants, especially in Bogota, Colombia. They are basic, often illegal hotels, which instead of receiving tourists rely on immigrants, who end up depositing a large percentage of their daily income there every night, usually in cash. They are commonly used by street workers or those without the stability of a fixed month salary.
Monica Rivera Rueda is a journalist with Colombia’s oldest running El Espectador daily newspaper. She has also worked at the Sergio Arboleda radio and Bombea newspaper.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.