Colombia's President On Amnesty For Venezuelans: 'We Want To Set An Example'

Mar 3, 2021
Originally published on March 3, 2021 8:14 pm

Colombian President Iván Duque has won praise from the Biden administration, the United Nations and Pope Francis for his decision last month to provide temporary legal status to undocumented migrants from neighboring Venezuela. But according to Duque, what's been lacking from the international community is money to pay for a crisis that's similar in scope to the outflow of Syrian refugees in the 2010s.

Of the 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled an authoritarian regime and a collapsing economy in their homeland, some 2 million have settled in Colombia. About half of these newcomers to Colombia are undocumented and Duque's new policy will allow them to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years. Duque said it will also provide migrants with better access to education, health care and legal employment.

Colombia's open-door approach contrasts with harder-line policies in nearby Peru, Ecuador and Chile where — amid rising xenophobia — governments have put in place visa requirements and other barriers to Venezuelan migrants.

Venezuelan migrants rest as they wait to receive food and medicines from members of the Red Cross on a highway in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela last month.
Schneyder Mendoza / AFP via Getty Images

But it's a costly strategy. Duque said his government spends more than $1 billion a year on Venezuelan migrants with just a trickle of the funds coming from the international community. Compared to the spending on the refugee crises in Syria and South Sudan, Duque said that relatively little money has come from foreign donors for resettling Venezuelan migrants.

Duque spoke more about the challenges of the Venezuelan refugee crisis in an interview with Ari Shapiro on NPR's All Things Considered. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On why Colombia adopted an open-door migration policy

We want to set an example and [be] a reference that can be adopted by other countries. We want to demonstrate that although we're not a rich country, we can do something that is humanitarian, that is fraternal, but at the same time is an intelligent and sound migration policy.

We have built a brotherhood with Venezuela. [During Colombia's drug-fueled guerrilla war] there were hundreds and thousands of Colombians that went to Venezuela and found an opportunity. I believe that once there's a recovery in Venezuela and once people go back to Venezuela they will always remember those who gave them support in Colombia. And that will strengthen our relations like never before.

On the benefits of temporary protective status

Allowing migrants to be formalized helps us build a more equitable society. Once you regularize, people can open bank accounts, buy houses, and can work legitimately. Venezuelan migrants contribute in the coffee sector as [coffee-pickers]. We have 200,000 Venezuelans in Colombia contributing to social security.

[Migrants] don't stay for a year nor two or three or five. They likely stay for more than a decade. So it's better to do things intelligently. I think that approach, if other countries embrace it, will work.

On international aid for the Venezuelan refugee crisis

We have been paying more than $1 billion per year attending to migrants in Colombia. [So] we want to raise this issue before the world and mobilize more donor capacity. Venezuela is the major migration crisis in the world.

What has been pledged and disbursed in the case of Syria is more than $3,000 per migrant. When we look at South Sudan migration crisis, we're talking about more than $1,600 [per migrant]. And when we think about the [Venezuelan] crisis, it has been barely $316.

We know we're in the midst of COVID-19. We all know everybody has fiscal constraints. But we have to at least fulfill the commitments that have been made in donor conference around the world.

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Our next guest signed an order this week to help address the biggest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia's president, Ivan Duque, has decided to let Venezuelans legally remain in Colombia for 10 years with a path to citizenship. They now have temporary protective status, or TPS. Millions of Venezuelans have entered Colombia over the last year as the Venezuelan economy imploded. The U.N. calls this new policy the most important humanitarian gesture in the region in decades. And Colombia's president, Ivan Duque, is here to talk with us about it.


PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: Thank you so much, Ari. It's a great pleasure to be with you and NPR.

SHAPIRO: Tell me why you decided that it was necessary to give Venezuelans in Colombia not only long-term legal status, but also a path to citizenship.

DUQUE: Well, the first thing that I would like to say is that this is a decision that has been built over the last years. And finally, we just announced and we signed a decree yesterday - is that we will have, for the next 10 years, a temporary protection status so that we could regularize more than 1.7 million Venezuelans in our soil so that they can be active in the economic life but at the same time make them visible and give them opportunities and attend their major needs.

So this is something that we feel proud. We're not a rich country, but we considered that since we have been undertaking most of the fiscal burden of this situation, with our decision, we want to raise this issue before the eyes of the world and mobilize more donor capacity. So this is also a call for the international community to support this humanitarian action.

SHAPIRO: You are calling on other countries in the region to implement similar policies. But in fact, many countries in the region are going the opposite direction. In Peru, Chile and Ecuador, there are new restrictions on Venezuelans in the country. So why do you think Colombia is the outlier here?

DUQUE: Well, I think it doesn't contribute that we're in a political cycle in many countries in Latin America and obviously getting into decisions to fix a migration catastrophe like the one we're seeing in Venezuela. It's almost impossible to this - put this before the eyes of the electorate. But in our case, we are the bordering country with Venezuela. And although Venezuela has borders with other countries, this is the major border. So if we do it and we do it correctly, we want to set an example and a reverence that can be adopted by other countries.

SHAPIRO: There's a philosophical values-based question here - right? - that all over the world, countries are either saying, we make this a welcoming country for immigrants and so we bring people into the economic fold, or if we make life more difficult for immigrants, maybe we won't have the burden of more people coming to our country. And we see both of those approaches. In the United States, we see both of those approaches back to back in two administrations. And so tell us why you lean towards the former rather than the latter, philosophically.

DUQUE: Because, Ari, what I have seen throughout my life is that when there are massive flows of migration, the world, and especially in recent years, has been reacting with xenophobia or has been reacted with a negation of the problem. I think those approaches have been negative. And at the end of the day, we have already the people in Colombia.

So we want to demonstrate that although we're not a rich country, we can do something that is humanitarian but, at the same time, that is an intelligent and sound migration policy because they will have to register. But at the same time, once you regularize, well, people can open bank accounts. People can buy houses. People can work and can work legitimately without disturbing or disrupting the opportunities for the Colombian people.

All the information that we have gathered about migration movements in the world - and especially driven by humanitarian conditions and the destruction of economic capacity - is that they don't stay for a year nor two nor three nor five. They likely staying for more than a decade. So it's better to do things with a focalized policy and to open them the opportunity to contribute also to the Colombian economy.

SHAPIRO: You argue that this policy will help Colombian workers, but this is not a politically popular policy. Our reporter in Colombia, John Otis, has been talking with people in the country who are afraid that this is going to take away the jobs that are already scarce in the pandemic recession. And as you know, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel put a similar policy in place for Syrian refugees, there was a big political backlash against her party. Are you worried about the same?

DUQUE: Ari, when you have to act, thinking of what's good for humanity, what is good for Colombia, what is good for the world, you cannot think on short-term political consequences. I'm not running for reelection. And what is clear is that that 1.7 million people are already in Colombia. They're already here. And some of them have been abused because they get paid in - below the conditions of a Colombian worker just because they are informal.

So if you regularize, it shouldn't crowd out the jobs for the Colombian people. And if there's a conflict, a political conflict, I think that political conflict will be solved in a sense that the recovery of our economy is going to open opportunities for the Colombians but also for the migrants that are already in our country.

SHAPIRO: You've expressed concern about the amount of international support for the Venezuelan refugee crisis compared to the amount of support for the Syrian refugee crisis. And the international community has praised this new policy. I wonder, in the weeks since you've unveiled it, has anyone come through with new funding commitments?

DUQUE: First of all, I want to express gratitude for the agencies that have been working with us closely. And let me begin by expressing my gratitude to USAID. I'm also thankful with the Spanish government that last year called for an international donor conference. But let's think on the proportion of this crisis. The major crisis was a Syrian crisis and now has been surpassed by Venezuela. We're talking about more than 6 million people that have left their country, trying to find refuge and opportunity elsewhere. When we look at what has been pledged and disbursed and contribute in the case of the Syrian crisis, it's more than $3,000 per migrant. And when we think about this crisis, it has been barely $316. These are Brooking's numbers. And my request is that once we regularize, once we know who they are, what their needs are, it's easier to call for the international support for specific programs.

SHAPIRO: To conclude, the U.S., as you are aware, has its own debate over immigration at our southern border with Mexico - people fleeing violence from Central America and other countries. Do you think there are lessons that you have learned in Colombia that could apply to our struggles over immigration policy here?

DUQUE: I think we have all learned from different experience, Ari. I lived for 14 years in the United States, and I remember that the U.S. has been a country that has been open to migrants. Many important migrants from different origins have made history in the United States. So obviously, the United States has many challenges as well. But I think in this particular case, with the TPS that we have granted for the Venezuelan citizens, I also believe that that's something that can be considered by the U.S., primarily based on the idea that the U.S. has been one of the main supporters of the fight against the dictatorship in Venezuela. So if we can all coordinate, I think it's a way to demonstrate that in the Western Hemisphere, in the 21st century, we can think of a different, more intelligent and more socially viable immigration policies.

SHAPIRO: President of Colombia Ivan Duque, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

DUQUE: Thank you so much, Ari.