Millions of Venezuelans have been flooding Colombia’s borders for years because of the political and economic instability of their home country. The refugees do not have many options when they first come to Colombia. Several of them resort to sleeping on the streets, in one of the few refugee camps or if they are lucky enough, with family members that migrated earlier.

Many Venezuelan refugees lack primary health care, job opportunities and safe shelter, and this leaves them in the violent areas near refugee camps. Organized crime groups target and exploit the insecurities of the refugees in order to recruit them and lead them into a dangerous lifestyle. They face dangerous and deadly situations and face the risk of persecution and even deportation in order to make ends meet and survive.

Migrant Crisis

The Venezuelan migrant crisis started in 2013 after President Hugo Chavez died from cancer and his Vice President Nicolas Maduro replaced him Protests started due to allegations of election fraud. Years of political instability, recession and hyperinflation and deadly protests have pushed millions of Venezuelans out of their homes in order to find some security and stability.

Colombian Organized Crime

Organized crime has been rampant in Central and South America for years. Also, crime in Colombia is much higher than anywhere else and has recently seen a resurgence. There are multiple dissenting political militias and insurgencies, with Banda Criminales (BACRIM) being one of the leading organized crime groups dealing in “drug trafficking, violence and illegal mining,” alongside sex trafficking.

Organized crime in Colombia is so systemic because the wealth disparity is quite significant, thereby affecting every part of society. The rural areas tend to be poorer and face a lack of education and political disenfranchisement. Gangs and organized crime can easily overrun state control in these areas due to being in control of massive amounts of wealth.

Organized Crime’s Impact on Refugees

BACRIM and other organized crime groups are so powerful. These groups often replace state security forces in rural and poorer areas, becoming the strongest force in many of the border camps where Venezuelan refugees seek asylum.

Many refugees are undocumented and do not know the ins and outs of Colombia’s legal system and organized crime ring, making them vulnerable to crime and recruitment by gangs.

The gangs lure the Venezuelan refugees with promises of food, shelter and work opportunities. The refugees view working for the gang as a lucrative deal, as many of them are undocumented. They end up doing much of the dirty work and often end up as “street fighters, drug dealers and hit men,” while the women end up in forced sex work and suffer abuse, according to the International Crisis Group.

The Venezuelan refugees end up doing the more visible crime which makes them much more susceptible to discrimination and criminal charges. They face extreme amounts of xenophobia among the general public and are often the scapegoat for other unrelated economic or social issues.

Venezuelan refugees also fear deportation. The xenophobia has led to many anti-immigrant political movements and the easiest government response is through deportation, the International Crisis Group reports.

Ongoing Efforts

The economic issues that Colombia faces contribute to the prevalence of organized crime. Many international organizations have offered money as a resource to help with the migrant crisis. For instance, the World Bank has offered $1.6 billion. The World Bank’s support focuses on addressing needs at all levels of government in addition to providing a short-term to medium/long-term humanitarian response.

Other international organizations and groups have focused on providing better resources and equipment to properly house the migrants. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) launched its emergency response team in 2018 in the border city of Cúcuta in an effort to provide support and resources. The IRC is mainly focusing on providing support to women and children refugees through healthcare and maternal care. By 2020, over 87,000 Venezuelans in both Venezuela and Colombia received help.

UNHCR opened a “reception center” in early 2019 along the border between Venezuela and Colombia to provide some safe, temporary housing and other critical resources. The UNHCR has worked on providing documentation to children in addition to other child care and legal services.

Looking Ahead

Efforts from international organizations and groups are providing support and resources to address the challenges faced by Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. The World Bank’s financial assistance and the International Rescue Committee’s emergency response team are helping to meet the immediate needs of migrants, while UNHCR’s reception center offers temporary housing and critical services. These initiatives are aiming to improve access to healthcare, legal support and documentation, particularly for women and children, providing a glimmer of hope and stability for Venezuelan refugees seeking security and a better future in Colombia.

Kathryn Kendrick

Photo: Flickr