While Colombia has found global fame in recent years through resolving its embittered guerrilla civil war, Venezuela has unfortunately become infamous, thanks to its unfolding political and economic crisis, which has resulted in a refugee crisis some are calling the worst in Latin American history. And thanks to the two countries' vicinity, many Venezuelans are increasingly calling Colombia their new home.
While many have heard of those refugees on Greek islands, Turkish border towns, and the Mexican-US border, much less has been heard about Colombia's Venezuelan refugee crisis. According to official state numbers, Colombia hosts around 1.8 million Venezuelans (although some NGOs put the number higher).
Though hard to estimate movements of so large a mass of people, it seems as though many Venezuelans first saw Colombia as a stop in their long journey to other parts of South America or North America. Some Venezuelans were simply visitors, crossing the border to buy medicine and food, and attend school. But this trend seems to be changing.
According to the director of Migración Colombia, Juan Francisco Espinosa, the amount of Venezuelans leaving Colombia for other countries has decreased by 20% in 2019, as compared to previous years.
The Colombian government has taken notice. President Iván Duque Márquez has written a Washington Post op-ed recently asking for more international support to tackle the humanitarian crisis. And for good reason too: around 58% of the refugees are irregular, meaning they are not necessarily contributing to the state coffers. This means they might be less likely to get the state support they need.
This is especially important in a country like Colombia, which has one of the largest informal economies in the region, with 47.2% of its population in precarious jobs. In this type of economic environment, Venezuelan refugees can easily be recruited or forced to work in prostitution, illegal drug cultivation, and even gangs.
But it is not all doom and gloom.
The Venezuelans staying in Colombia also offer something vital to Colombia's labor market: youth. While the benefits of a youthful influx of laborers might bring to the economy is under-studied, it could present a good future economic opportunity for the country, especially in terms of GDP and productive output, according to Colombia's Foundation for Higher Education and Development (Fedesarrollo). And speaking of financial benefits, there is some real money to be made from the type who have settled within Colombia's borders.
The Colombian Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce estimates that during the last eight years (since 2012), Venezuelans have invested around USD700 million in Colombia. Adding this number to the estimate of how much each individual Venezuelan has brought on average (USD1,500), Venezuelans have grown the Colombian economy by USD2 billion, which represents approximately 2.5% of the country's annual budget.
Furthermore, the investments made have come from a sector of the economy Colombia has been trying to grow: that of oil and gas. While some investors have come directly from Venezuela's PDVSA, others have been contracted by Ecopetrol, Colombia's main oil company, or have started their own company, like Frontera Energy, a Venezuelan-Canadian petroleum company.
Businesses that have been attracted by Colombia's stability are not limited to the oil and gas sector: pharmacies and medical supply shops, such as Farmatodo and Locatel, have also been introduced into the Colombian marketplace.The crisis has also brought more aid to parts of Colombia that need funding like border towns.
Thanks to funds made jointly by the state and international relief organizations, these places have been able to grow their infrastructure, schools, and public health offerings. In 2019, the UN confirmed it would pledge USD315 mil-lion to the Colombian state to address the refugee crisis. As a country whose own citizens were often those migrating to other countries due to decades of violence, the current Venezuelan refugee crisis offers Colombia a way to return the favor to Venezuela, which in the past hosted over 4 million displaced Colombians. If all goes well, Colombia might have a thing or two to show the world on how to handle refugees.