Colombia will offer temporary protective status to nearly one million undocumented Venezuelan migrants, enabling them to work in the country legally as well as access healthcare and other essential services.
The initiative was announced by Colombian President Ivan Duque and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in a joint briefing on Monday. It constitutes a major humanitarian act by a country that is home to some 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans, more than half of whom lack regular status, according to the UNHCR.
“We launched the [temporary protective status] for Venezuelan migrants, with the aim of providing care to those fleeing the dictatorship,” Duque wrote in a tweet. “This mechanism allows us to have information to grant them immigration status and, in 10 years, the possibility of a resident visa.”
The new temporary protection statute will make Venezuelan migrants who are in Colombia illegally eligible for 10-year residence permits, and allow migrants currently on temporary residence to extend their stay, The Associated Press reports.
Migrants who arrived in Colombia before Jan. 31 are eligible, as are those who enter legally during the first two years that the policy is in effect. Duque also said that anyone who does not register under the new status will eventually be subject to deportation.
Overall, the initiative could benefit up to one million Venezuelans living in Colombia without proper papers, according to the AP, as well as hundreds of thousands who need to extend temporary visas.
“Colombia’s offer to provide temporary protection to Venezuelans on its territory for a ten-year period is a humanitarian gesture of an unprecedented scale in the region — and the entire world,” Grandi said in his remarks. “This initiative is an extraordinary example of humanity, commitment towards human rights, and pragmatism.”
Political, humanitarian and socioeconomic turmoil have prompted more than 4.5 million Venezuelans to leave their home country since 2014, in what the UN describes as one of the largest displacement crises in the world. Many have settled in other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, with a significant share — about 37% — now living in neighboring Colombia.
The UNHCR and International Organization for Migration noted in a joint release that the pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on Venezuelan refugees and migrants in hard-hit Latin America, with many struggling to survive in the face of worsening poverty, job losses, evictions, hunger and lack of access to medical care.
Much of this population works in the informal sector of the economy and often faces exploitation and abuse, Grandi added, saying that temporary protective status will enable them to “contribute fully to Colombian society.”
It will also grant members of this population access to basic services, including the national health system and COVID-19 vaccines. Duque prompted a wave of criticism from humanitarian groups in December when he said that undocumented Venezuelan migrants would be ineligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
In his remarks, Duque also said that registering undocumented immigrants and refugees would benefit Colombia’s security agencies and facilitate the provision of social services.
“The regularization of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia through the provision of a generous temporary protection status is a key to facilitating their socio-economic integration and access to the national health system and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns,” said António Vitorino, the director general of the IOM.
Longer-term, the agencies said that granting more people access to the job market could also lessen their dependence on humanitarian assistance and contribute to Colombia’s eventual socioeconomic recovery after the pandemic.
The Venezuelan population in Colombia declined more than 2% last year as tens of thousands of people returned to Venezuela during the economic shutdown, according to Reuters. Still, Colombian authorities expect many to return as the economy recovers, and to bring additional people with them.
Duque said during his remarks that he hopes other countries will follow Colombia’s example.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the move in a tweet posted Monday, writing: “The U.S. stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.”