Open Borders and Open Hearts: How the Venezuelan State Addresses its Population of Colombian Refugees

Stephanie Kennedy analyses the Venezuelan state’s response to the influx of refugees resulting from Colombia’s on-going internal conflict, and the experience of Colombians upon arrival in Venezuela.

By Stephanie Kennedy


“Welcome to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” reads the sign on the Venezuelan – Colombian border in Zulia state (EFE)
“Welcome to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” reads the sign on the Venezuelan – Colombian border in Zulia state (EFE)
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Colombia, for all its cultural wealth and geographical beauty, is also a nation that finds itself embedded in a six–decade-long armed conflict that has come to characterise the country both within and beyond its national borders. The belligerent forces are, according to the United Nations, “irregular armed groups”, a loose diplomatic term that serves to identify violence without having to cast the blame on anyone or needing to confront the possible roots of such violence. Truth is, both government and non-governmental agencies have been battling it out resulting in thousands of deaths and disappearances, leaving a large part of the population displaced and on the run.

Venezuela, its neighbouring nation, has stood not only as witness to the events but also as player in both political and humanitarian relief, providing asylum to over three thousand Colombians. Whilst the true figures of Colombian refugees in Venezuela stand at over two hundred thousand, it is evident the process of registration still fails to keep up with the increasing and apparently continuous numbers of asylum seekers entering the country. Nonetheless, this situation has meant that Venezuela has made the issue of Colombian refugees a question of public policy and has articulated a state-wide response to a pressing situation.

“The absolute majority of those who have fled and find themselves today in Venezuela, are villagers, or campesinos, and those who come from the frontier zones between Colombia and Venezuela”, explains Mohamed Alwash, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Venezuela. “They flee for various reasons. Firstly, and most generally, they flee because of the instability in the area due to the activities of armed groups. Secondly, they wish to escape forced recruitment. The same groups will approach a family and target the younger members of 14 to 15 years old, an age old enough to fight but still young enough to influence and manipulate. They warn the family they have one week to make a decision. If the answer is no they will come back and kill them. Sometimes the whole family flees or sometimes just those who had been specifically targeted. La vacuna is of course a further reason for fleeing, exercised in the name of protection. This is due to either weak or the total lack of governmental presence, which, in theory, should be the one guaranteeing the people’s security. These groups could either be guerrilla forces or paramilitaries. In our literature we call them irregular armed groups and then we let your imagination work out the rest. They are all the same to us.”

The absence of Colombian government or authority with regards to the situation of displaced Colombians means that there exists an equal disparity in the legislature set up to manage the conflict. It was only last year, under the Juan Manuel Santos administration, that the Ley de Víctimas (Law for Victims) was established, signed together with the current Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. “This law recognises for the first time that there is a conflict in Colombia, and that there are victims. It is a huge step forward. The majority of victims, between six and eight million people, are still within Colombia, not refugees in other countries but displaced within their own country. This new law gives them the right to compensation”. Despite these advances, Alwash is cautious when examining the conflict today and believes that while the influx of refugees to Venezuela continues, true changes by the Colombian government towards the forced migrations are still difficult to measure. On the border, the situation has not changed. It is a no mans land, and a handful of competing parties, from land owners, rebel groups to privately hired assassins continue to operate with complete impunity.

Arriving in Venezuela

A Colombian’s journey on reaching Venezuela is another experience altogether. High levels of immigration during the nineteen sixties due to Venezuela’s petrol boom meant that many Colombians today have dozens of family members already residing in the country. As a result, seeking a place to stay and employment is a lot easier, even if they never mange to claim full refugee status or legal documentation. Considering only a small percentage of refugees are ever fully recognised by Venezuela’s National Commission for Refugees, due to the lengthy process that can be the registration of an individual, alongside the overwhelming influx of Colombians, their quick adaptation and settlement comes as comforting news considering the harrowing experiences they are fleeing. Alwash relates how he met a young Colombian man in San Antonio del Táchira, the first town in Venezuela after crossing the Colombian border. “I saw him from afar, crossing the bridge that leads from one border control to the next, and then I met him in the Caritas centre in San Antonio (A Christian groups that also works with Colombian refugees). I asked him where he might go now, and quite confidently, he replied that he had family working in a finca (farm) and that they could get him housing and work. This is the case for many, and most will try to travel as far away from the border as they can”.

Working in the fincas has been for decades the answer for most Colombians on the run. Seeing as many come from rural or peasant backgrounds, it permits them to continue working in the line of work they are already familiar with. However, it is worth noting that working in a Venezuelan finca wasn’t always the better option. The west of Venezuela, in the states of Zulia, Táchira, Mérida and Apure have for a long time been the home for a few rich land owners who amounted wealth and territory through cattle farming. Many of these ranches however have been abandoned over the years as their owners moved to the United States and left the management of the farms in the hands of incompetent business men. Numerous farms still in operation were discovered to be selling low quality products and some still capitalised on entire herds affected by tuberculosis. A wave of government-fuelled land expropriation swept through the country in order to regain much of the abandoned land that had, in some cases, been used in illegal business transactions with foreign oil companies. Large extensions of land were bought and sold so as to secure the territory if ever oil were to be discovered, regardless of the thousands of peasants that inhabited the same area. 2010 to 2011 were particularly intensive years for this governmental policy, uncovering at times criminal cases of mistreated cattle and equally mistreated workers, who all the while were being exploited whilst the next oil dig was being planned. Hacienda Bolívar, a farm covering 3902 hectares, belonging to the Brillembourg family, strongly tied to the Rockefeller family, in Zulia State, was taken over on 17th December 2010. On opening the gates, over 137 workers were discovered living in appalling conditions, underpaid, overworked and lacking the most basic of medical attention. The majority of workers were Colombians, political refugees and lacking legal documentation. Their vulnerability meant that farm managers had taken advantage of their inability to protest and their need to keep quiet. One individual who had been living in the hacienda, who preferred to remain nameless, commented; “We were living like slaves, completely humiliated. Even the cattle were dying”. Immediate action was taken to tend to the Colombians and today most of them have received their documentation and are now free to work where they choose in the confidence that they too can demand to be treated fairly.

“Openness” in Venezuelan Government Approach

The general response to the case of Colombian refugees on behalf of the Venezuelan government has been overwhelmingly positive, and one, according to Alwash, who has worked with refugees in four different continents, that singles itself out in terms of openness and willingness to address the situation. This is due in large part to the fact that there exists very little cultural difference between Colombians and Venezuelans, who share similarities on ethnic, religious and historical grounds. Nelisa Sanchez from San Cristobal, an important Venezuelan town just one hour from the border explains. “Culturally speaking, we [Colombians and Venezuelans] are an historic reality that has been formed from the same origin which is both countries at once, so we share many things in common”.  Indeed, from San Cristobal in Venezuela, to Cucuta in Colombia, the area is a melting pot of Colombian-Venezuelan identity, with accents and faces merging into one people who live and work between both countries with an ease only true to that of, what many call themselves, “cultural brothers”. 

Nonetheless, this border-zone reality, as autonomous as it may feel at times, remains sensitive to diplomatic relations. In 2009, tense relations between Uribe of Colombia and Chavez of Venezuela, a situation caused by a number of political differences regarding the establishment of US military bases in Colombia, meant that the border zones lining the two countries became heavily militarised and the crossing extremely complicated. Nelisa remembers how at the time, business dropped and day to day life was severely affected. “A lot of us live and work between the two countries, suddenly we could no longer pass through how we used to”. Relations have improved since the 2009 situation, to the degree that at the start of 2012, Venezuela decreed that all Colombians could freely pass into Venezuela without the need of a visa. This is unquestionably the fruit of healthier relations between Chavez and the current president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos.

Reasons to flee to Venezuela, apart from the urgency in itself to escape persecution are also founded on the fact that once in Venezuela, Colombians can expect to enjoy the fulfilment of their basic human rights. The Venezuelan constitution declares that all must be allowed free health care and education as well as easier access to housing, regardless of their nationality or whether they possess legal documentation or not. Compared to other cases of political refugees around the world, where many are moved from one prison cell to the next, this is an exceptional situation.

Maria Cordoba, a young Colombian mother of three who had crossed the border but a month ago, now also living in San Cristobal shared her joy at having been able to settle down so easily. “After the first two weeks of being in Venezuela, my children were already attending a local primary school down the road from where we are now living, and I have found work as a cleaner. I feel very lucky”.

In December 2011, Venezuela participated in the Geneva summit and made three pledges with regards to ameliorating its politics towards Colombian refugees in Venezuela. The first pledge was to guarantee the situation was met by public policy in all areas. The consequent meetings in Venezuela after the summit saw twenty five ministries meet and decide how each in turn could better address the problem. “Even the Minister for Youth attended, and stressed the importance of building more playgrounds for refugee children. Now that is amazing!” shares Alwash, smiling. The second pledge was to grant further care to refugee women, adolescents and children. The third was a promise to improve the process of registration and documentation, at times an extremely time-consuming and bureaucratic procedure. As to whether the treatment of Colombian refugees would differ if there were to occur a radical change of government, Alwash reflects. “I am not in a position to say. The treatment shouldn’t change but who knows? In a socialist government, the nature of its theory should be to grant lots of rights to people. And if you agree to also give those rights to a foreigner, well, that’s quite something.”

Venezuela offers a refuge to those who find none in their own country and a peephole view into what has been lived by millions of Colombians. However, it also exposes the shortcomings in the Colombian system. Although the conflict has quietened down over the last few years, as have the number of attacks on both civilians and governmental institutions, the response on behalf of the Colombian government with regards to its conflict and consequences still leave much to desire. The fact that millions of Colombians have been forced to relocate, the majority unable to cross the border, means that the crisis cannot be remitted to the history books just yet. Until the situation improves, Venezuela will continue to provide the necessary support to a people in need.

Stephanie Kennedy is a writer and journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. She writes a blog with Huffington Post UK, which can be read here.