This Country Is Setting the Bar for Handling Migrants

The conservative government of President Iván Duque in Bogotá is offering citizenship to Colombian-born babies of Venezuelan mothers.

A girl in a green shirt draws hearts and houses on a paper labeled "Venezuela."
A Venezuelan girl plays at a camp run by the UN refugee agency in Colombia. (Luisa Gonzalez / Reuters)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—This country is already overwhelmed by the Venezuelan migration. Its schools and hospitals are crowded. Its public spaces are overrun. Yet its right-wing government continues, against mild public opposition, to keep Colombia open as more and more people arrive from across the border, fleeing the collapse of their economy.

Most recently, Colombian President Iván Duque extended citizenship to 24,000 Colombian-born babies of Venezuelan mothers, as well as to those born in the next two years. The offer is a generous one for women in Venezuela who would migrate to raise children.

Why does Colombia, with its own problems, compounded by decades of civil war, strive to keep such a charitable demeanor toward Venezuela? Although the country’s approach has won praise from humanitarian institutions, Bogotá’s plan isn’t only about goodwill, but also about a levelheaded attempt to build a framework to manage a migration that’s going to come whether citizenship is offered to Venezuelan babies or not.

It certainly makes Colombia seem like a leader in global migration ideas. Although the country is playing catch-up on the issue of birthright citizenship, which is standard across the continent, the direction of its migration policy is notable: It is opening up while other nations, including in the region, are closing down. The approach combines a cold realism acknowledging that nothing will stop the migration with a strategy aimed at economic integration and a heartfelt affection for Venezuela—long a hero in Colombia’s own story.

“For those who want to make from xenophobia a political path, we adopt the path of brotherhood,” Duque said in a televised address announcing his decree. “For those who want to outcast or discriminate against migrants, we stand up today … to say that we are going to take them in and we are going to support them during difficult times.”

These remarks may seem uncharacteristic of a head of state from the political right today. Years of migration to places such as the United States, Europe, and Australia have prompted wealthy nations to narrow the entryways for immigrants. Politicians have garnered popular support by decrying the dangers of migration. So Colombia makes an interesting example of a less wealthy nation opening rather than shutting doors when confronted with 1.4 million new people—a number that will only rise.

When I asked Colombia’s border manager, Felipe Muñoz, if the president’s decree might attract more young women to Colombia to give birth, he said no.

“We don’t think that it’s administrative measures that move the migration,” he told me. “Those women were coming here to have babies anyway. And they did it because there aren’t hospitals in Venezuela. Perhaps it’s better to have everybody organized.”

Given Colombia’s more than 1,000 miles of open border with Venezuela, leaders here began forming their migration policy with the assumption that nothing they could do would stop the migration. Any effort now to restrict or discourage the flow of people out of Venezuela seems akin to the heaping of sandbags beside a mighty river as it swells. So the government is aiming to make this inevitable flood, well under way, as orderly as possible: That means more seats in schools and extra funding for hospitals, plus initiatives to integrate Venezuelans and some new sectors in the economy for the new population to support itself. Otherwise, already vulnerable communities here will drown in the tide of desperate people arriving to survive however they can.

The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bolstering hospitals, schools, credit, and aid for affected communities in the border zone. It is working on a framework for a comprehensive policy that will outline how to allocate funds to the migration crisis. But there isn’t much money to spare in a national budget already taxed by a reconciliation process from a civil war that ended in 2016. The international applause for Colombia’s open-migration stance hasn’t come with as many donation checks as officials here had expected.

Meanwhile, the open approach hasn’t always been an easy sell to the public. Duque’s announcement of his citizenship decree, posted on social media, quickly racked up a long list of comments demanding to know why Colombia would spend money helping Venezuelans when its own people have plenty of problems. Indeed, initially generous attitudes may be beginning to dull. One poll, by the Colombian market-research firm Invamer and commissioned by major local media brands, found that Colombians’ disapproval of the government’s handling of the Venezuelan crisis grew from 34 percent to 56 percent from February to July, while support for accommodative policies for Venezuelans fell from 56 percent to 46 percent. Many Venezuelans and aid groups complain about anger and xenophobia toward the immigrant population. But for the most part, Venezuelans arriving by foot or by bus have largely been able to lean on a robust web of humanitarian-support operations from Colombian charities and NGOs.

But the long-term developmental challenges for local governments across Colombia are becoming clearer as immigrant communities sprout throughout the poorest areas of big cities. The migration crisis, once confined mostly to the border zone, has spread to all major urban areas, where Venezuelan families live on the brink of poverty. Bogotá, a city of 7 million, is now home to 350,000 Venezuelans alone.

One such community, called La Magdalena, sits between industrial yards on the west end of the capital. An estimated 100 families, most having arrived in the past year, live in hastily built brick shacks amid piles of rubble and trash. They make their living by collecting and sorting the city’s garbage, then selling it to a nearby recycling plant. Local children sport a large collection of derelict toys that their parents salvaged during their daily pickings. Running water gets to only a few spigots in the area, which doesn’t appear on any map. The community grows as people come from Venezuela to join cousins or siblings who’ve found crude stability here.

All Venezuelan kids are entitled to attend Colombian public school, by edict of the government last year. But in many schools, there simply isn’t room; many of the children in La Magdalena have been put on waiting lists. They’ll be attended without being charged at hospitals only in cases of emergency. Most adults are confined to informal jobs.

The many young communities like La Magdalena represent a challenge to Colombia’s stability. Over a generation, they’ll come to fuel the informal economy and probably crime, harbor public-health problems, and keep the city playing catch-up to extend services to all its residents.

Colombia’s puzzle is how to keep these people away from the brink of poverty, ideally with jobs, education, and health care, so that they can become productive citizens in a modern economy. That isn’t easily done, especially with national unemployment already at 10 percent. The government has touted public-private partnerships to invest in the economic opportunity created by a displaced population that needs to rebuild. It has registered nearly 700,000 Venezuelans for special permission to work. It issued a stimulus spending package to help border communities absorb the crisis.

With enough investment, this influx of people could be harnessed and used to build a better future for everyone. But there isn’t enough investment, or enough resources in the country, to match the magnitude of the migration. In his recent speech, Duque pointed out this contrast with wealthier nations that have a much greater ability to absorb migrants economically.

He said, “Even though we have a per capita income of less than $8,000, much less than European countries that have confronted migratory crises, we know how to act in brotherhood and a sense of solidarity.”

Yet Colombians often insist that comparing their own migration policy with others abroad isn’t fair, because of their age-old younger-sibling-esque relationship with Venezuela. Duque went on in his speech to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary this month of the war for independence, which the two neighbors fought side by side. Simón Bolívar, known in Colombia as “The Liberator,” marched from Venezuela to free Bogotá from Spanish imperial rule in August 1819 and formed a massive nation, of which both these modern countries were a part. Long after that nation’s dissolution, Venezuela, a leader in Latin America, thrived on oil riches while Colombia struggled, mired in poverty and war. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled violence at home for better prospects in Venezuela, which, they say, received them gracefully.

“Twenty years ago, when the opposite was happening … they actually welcomed us. So for all Colombians, this is a very emotional issue,” Sergio Guzman, the founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, told me.

To many, it feels like Colombia is paying back an important favor to a neighbor that has twice come to the rescue. Venezuelans are also aware of this. They remember the waves of migration that washed upon their country back when it was wealthy, not just from Colombia but from all over Latin America. And they remember their own community’s relatively welcoming stance toward the newcomers.

“Venezuela helped many Colombians,” Rossana Tua, 33, told me as she stood outside her brick shack home in La Magdalena, where she’s lived for almost a year since moving from Venezuela. “Now it’s Colombia’s turn to help Venezuelans.”