BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombian President Ivan Duque announced on Monday that his government will grant temporary legal status to more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants who have fled to Colombia in recent years, a far-reaching move that will allow migrants to legally and work comfortably to establish life from the shadows.
The decision has been hailed by UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi as a “historic” and “most important humanitarian gesture” in the region for decades.
The decision will allow Venezuelan migrants who register with the Colombian government to stay in the country for 10 years.
More than half of the 1.7 million Venezuelans in the country do not currently have legal status. Under the new measure, those who entered Colombia without a permit before 31 January can be legalized. And those who already have legal status will now be exempt from applying for a residence permit again for at least a decade.
Venezuela, led by a socialist-inspired government for the past two decades, has been in crisis since 2014, causing a collapse that economists have called the worst in decades outside of war. As food, gasoline, and medicine disappeared, and as President Nicolás Maduro’s government became increasingly repressive, some 5.4 million people left the country, leading to one of the world’s greatest migration crises.
About a third of Venezuelan migrants landed in neighboring Colombia.
In his speech on Monday, Conservative Mr Duque, whose government has close ties to the United States, described his decision from both a humanitarian and practical perspective.
He called on students to be sympathetic to migrants around the world. “Migration crises are by definition humanitarian crises,” he said.
But he also stressed that the move will help get the government doing its job of helping officials identify those in need and helping those who break the law.
“We have nearly one million migrants in our country whose names we do not know,” said Mr Duque, adding, “We don’t know where they are, how old they are, what their socio-economic status is. And this is a bad situation. It is a bad situation because it does not allow us to pursue a clear social policy. It is a bad situation because it does not allow us to pursue a clear security policy. ”
The arrival of nearly two million Venezuelan migrants in a country of 50 million has increased the budget and angered some Colombians who see newcomers as competing for jobs and other services. Mr. Duque’s announcement on Monday is likely to exacerbate this rage.
In his speech, he reiterated his call for global assistance to Colombia in dealing with the humanitarian crisis, which the Brookings Institution called one of the most underfunded in modern history.
On Monday, Yohany Gonzalez, a 46-year-old Venezuelan immigrant from Caracas, called the new Colombian policy “the best thing that could have happened to me”.
Ms Gonzalez moved to Colombia on foot three years ago with her two children and grandchildren and could not find a job because she has no legal status, she said. He spends his time on the street, trying to sell garbage bags and candies.
“I don’t want to beg on the street begging,” he said. – I want a real job.
Sofía Villamil contributed to the report.