Exploring the Local Organizational Response to Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia





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In the wake of the crisis in Venezuela, a “mixed-flow” migration—including Venezuelans who have left Venezuela for Colombia and Colombian returnees coming back from Venezuela—has created new and significant challenges for institutions in neighboring Colombia. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia need places to live, jobs, schools for their children, and clinics where they can receive medical treatment and other services. Humanitarian efforts to provide these supports have been remarkable in scope, and the coordinated effort has quickly scaled up interventions in collaboration with the Colombian government and municipal authorities. The success of this effort is critical for Colombia. Failure to integrate Venezuelans into Colombia’s social and economic fabric may lead to a large and settled population that is fundamentally disconnected from the formal labor market and a viable path to self-sufficiency. This may also heighten their vulnerability to human trafficking, recruitment into the production of coca, and recruitment by dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), and right-wing paramilitaries. The Colombian government and international partners have taken numerous steps towards addressing the issue of integration, including providing work permits to hundreds of thousands of irregular Venezuelan migrants. Though evolving, these large-scale policy efforts are well documented by media and independent reports. However, we know less about how local organizations in Colombia are adjusting to the fluctuating needs and shifting dynamics associated with the flow of Venezuelan migrants. These local entities that are providing direct services to the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants are an important part of the short- and long-term humanitarian solution.

This study aims to understand how networks of local organizations that provide services for Venezuelans are adapting to meet their needs, particularly in receptor cities where migrants are settling. Because migrants in these places often intend to stay indefinitely, receptor cities are where the immediate humanitarian needs of Venezuelan migrants—finding basic shelter and food—are compounded by longer-term challenges, including social and economic integration into mainstream institutions. The Colombian government is collaborating with numerous international organizations and NGOs to coordinate a response to this complex dynamic. Given the social, economic, security, and rule of law concerns noted above, the effectiveness of this coordinated response is critical and merits careful analysis. This study, however, focuses on the challenges associated with addressing the needs of migrants on the ground—that is, how policies and programs are ultimately delivered and administered by local service providers. What barriers do local service providers encounter while addressing the social and economic needs of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia? How is their ability to meet these needs enabled or constrained by the larger coordinated humanitarian response? Ultimately, what implications may this dynamic have for the integration of the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and the preservation of rule of law?

Primary data from this study come from in-depth interviews with the leaders of local organizations that serve Venezuelans and a small sample (n=25) of migrants who are beneficiaries of their services. Interviews were conducted in person and over the phone from January to June 2019. The study focuses on the case of Bogotá, the major receptor city for Venezuelan migrants, and Cúcuta, the primary border city where nearly half of all migrants are crossing into the country. Participant organizations include international organizations, USAID, providers that are implementing partners within the coordinated humanitarian relief effort, and other entities that offer services for migrants independent of the formal humanitarian apparatus in Colombia.

Findings from this study highlight the ongoing challenges associated with integrating the most vulnerable Venezuelans into Colombian society and mainstream institutions. The respondent organizations in this study provide a view that complements and enhances the statistical portraits presented in reports produced by NGOs, the Colombian government, and the international community. Broadly, this study finds that local organizations are seeking innovative ways to build capacity to meet the emerging needs of Venezuelans. These innovations include relying more heavily on volunteers, partnering with informal organizations (e.g., individuals and small community groups), and redirecting resources from existing programs (designed for Colombian internally displaced persons [IDPs], for example). Beyond identifying these innovations, this analysis aims to describe how they develop and the organizational efforts to sustain them. Despite these innovations, many of the providers in this study continue to bump up against significant limitations in capacity and funding. Without more effective policies that allow them to work in the formal labor market, the most vulnerable Venezuelans—particularly women, children, and those without legal status—are at risk of social exclusion. Their vulnerability threatens to fuel rule of law concerns in Colombia, including the coca industry, human trafficking, and recruitment by guerrilla and paramilitary groups. While the Colombian government and its international collaborators are addressing these issues through policies and targeted programs—including existing and emerging legalization initiatives—findings from this study suggest that local organizations whose services provide a buffer for Venezuelan migrants may also be of added value—if indirectly—to those larger efforts.

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