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Colombia's Migrant History

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Colombia’s Plan to Legalize Venezuelan Migrants Recalls Colombia’s Troubled History With Emigration

Ivan Duque, Colombia’s president, shocked the world in early February 2021 by announcing that Colombia would extend legal protection to the nearly one million Venezuelans estimated to be in the country illegally. This will give them the right to seek formal employment and access state services such as medical care.

In times of increasing crackdowns against immigrants both in Latin America and around the world, Duque’s response was met with deserved applause in the international community. While Duque’s political motives are not completely clear, there is a clear economic incentive for the Colombian state. Legalization will save the state money -- with Venezuelans registered in the health system they will no longer depend on the costly emergency room for primary care. In addition, legalization allows the state to make money -- registered in the employment system, Venezuelans can pay taxes if they gain formal employment. Economic reasons aside, however, the legalization of Venezuelans may partly be the product of empathy for the migrant experience born of Colombia’s own tortured past. For many decades, Colombia lived its own national nightmare and millions left the country.

Starting in the 1960s, large numbers of Colombians began emigrating to study in the United States, Europe and Canada. Given the high cost of a foreign education, many of these first emigrants were from the privileged classes. Emigration accelerated in the 1980s as the violence between the state, guerrilla groups and narco traffickers intensified and people from all economic levels fled the country. Many went to next door Venezuela which was experiencing a boom in petroleum and could offer employment for many of the displaced.

Colombian emigration continued at high numbers through the mid-2010s to the point where, between 2012 and 2015, Colombia was the South American country with the highest number of citizens living outside the country.

As Venezuela’s political and economic situation became more precarious in the last decades, Colombian migrants went elsewhere. Often, migrants from one region of Colombia would establish a presence somewhere abroad and soon thousands from the same region would follow. During the 2000s and into the 2010s, Colombians from the Valle de Cauca and the Pacific coast -- in Colombia’s south -- began establishing a significant presence in copper-rich northern Chile where wages are far higher than Colombia. In addition to the greater economic opportunities, many of these Colombians were fleeing the violence between drug gangs in their home regions. Today Colombians are the fourth-largest group of foreigners living in Chile after Venezuelans, Peruvians, and Haitians. (The phenomena of migrants from one region emigrating in large numbers to specific regions in another country is by no means unique to the Colombian experience; in my home region of western Washington state, for instance, the Mexican population is largely from Michoacan and Jalisco.)

In addition to those who left Colombia, within the nation there were 7.2 million Colombians internally displaced by the mid-2010s as a result of the decades of conflict. Many of the internally displaced were from rural areas and had to restart lives in cities where they lacked connections and the necessary skills to make a living. Times, however, are changing.

In 2018, I was in the same Valle de Cauca that had sent so many migrants to Chile. I met 20 year-old Juan who grew up assuming that he would move somewhere else to go to university and work. “So many people in my family moved abroad for education and work. I just saw that I, too, would inevitably leave,” he said. The 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group, however, renewed Juan’s hope in the country. “I am now very positive about my future here and do not think I need to leave for educational and work opportunities. I love my country and am excited about its future.”

Juan’s optimism of the country’s future was echoed by other Colombians in the Valle de Cauca. It is an unlikely coincidence that between 2016 and 2019 -- the years where the peace with the FARC was finalized and implemented -- Colombian emigration declined and Colombia was no longer the South American country with the greatest number of its citizens living abroad. It is now in a position to receive immigrants and pay forward what they received -- protection from a failed state and a new opportunity for life.

Some Colombians have written that Colombia is not welcoming to mass immigration and foreigners. Colombian historian Hermes Tovar Pinzón argues that Colombia always has been “closed off to the possibility of mass immigration.” Likewise, the Colombian journalist Melba Escobar also points out that Colombia has had historically little immigration from Europe or Asia compared to other Latin American nations. Despite the closed history to immigration, on a 2018 trip to Colombia I found that many Colombians expressed sympathy for the Venezuelans streaming into Colombia’s cities. Dozens of Colombians told me they welcomed the Venezuelans because they had welcomed Colombians just 20 or 30 years prior. Although many Colombians oppose the Venezuelan presence and Duque’s legalization is partly driven by self-interest, it is nice to see at least one country working to improve the lives of the dispossessed rather than driving them away.

Colombia plans to legalize all Venezuelans in the country as of January 2021

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