Displaced Venezuelans are now the second-largest displaced population in the world, numbering 5.6 million — and trailing only displaced Syrians.
Notably, 4.6 million of them are hosted in neighbouring Latin American countries, where they are often met with restrictive responses from governments and have to cope with precarious legal statuses.
Although the region’s expanded refugee definition allows for those fleeing “generalized violence” and “massive violations of human rights” to be recognized as refugees, historically, most countries have avoided offering international protection to those who do not fit into this “classic” refugee definition, which requires a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
Until recently, this was the case for the majority of Venezuelans living in Colombia, which is this group’s main destination in the region.
In fact, while Colombia hosts 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans, in 2020 over 1 million did not have access to a regular status. By the end of that year, President Iván Duque’s calls for support from the international community took on a menacing tone, when he threatened to exclude Venezuelans without a regular status from the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program.
This situation took a positive turn in February 2021, when Duque announced a ten-year temporary protection status (TPS) for displaced Venezuelans.
Hailed as a “historical” move, this measure is expected to put an end to the uncertainty surrounding Venezuelans’ stays and livelihoods in Colombia. While Venezuelans benefitting from this policy are only expected to receive TPS permits in October, almost 900,000 have already completed its online pre-registration.
In-person appointments to collect biometrics are set to begin in September 2021 and, until then, the Colombian government needs to gear up and pave the way for a successful implementation.
But despite these recent achievements, the situation in Colombia is still precarious. After decades of armed conflict, the country still has the world’s largest population of internally-displaced persons (over 8 million people). Even though the government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016, violence has internally displaced almost 600,000 people since then.
In the first quarter of 2021 alone, more than 27,000 were displaced within the country. Moreover, amidst growing xenophobia, targeted mainly against Venezuelans, and anti-government protests, sustaining the TPS policy will be no easy task.
Hence, in this process, contributions and support from the international community—including Canada—will play a pivotal role.
‘Helping from behind the fence’
In recent years, Canada has played a leading role in supporting displaced Venezuelans in the region, as well as mobilizing assistance provided by the international community.
Since 2019, the country has committed over CA$86 million to support the region. Most of these funds were directed to Colombia, where they have been used for both humanitarian and development needs. In June 2021, following Spain’s example in 2020, Canada hosted the 2nd International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants. During the event, donors pledged US$1.5 billion in grants and loans for host countries in the region, including CA$115.4 million from Canada.
In July 2021, Canada will start chairing the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework, a multilateral mechanism designed to build resilience and support refugee responses in Central America and Mexico. Altogether, these are exemplary actions which may help to enhance responses in countries of asylum in Latin America, including Colombia.
But is this all that can be done for displaced Venezuelans in Colombia?
On World Refugee Day in June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised Canada’s “humanitarian tradition of protection to the world’s most vulnerable.” Some examples of this tradition involve Operation Lifeline, through which over 200,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled to Canada starting in the late 1970s, and Operation Syrian Refugees, which has resettled almost 45,000 Syrians since 2015. Although heavily supported by private sponsors in Canada and international organizations, such as the UN Refugee Agency, these initiatives would not have been made possible without the government’s incentive and will.
The Canadian government has made it clear that it is “deeply concerned by the unprecedented political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and its impact across the region.” Recognizing the worsening situation in that country, the government stopped deporting Venezuelans living in Canada without a regular status in early 2019. Later that year, the government also started accepting expired passports from Venezuelans wishing to travel to, or stay in, Canada.
Nonetheless, Canada’s interest in resettling displaced Venezuelans or facilitating their arrival in Canada has been minimal. In fact, the government has declared that it has “no plans to initiate any special temporary measures for Venezuelans and is not considering any dedicated resettlement effort.” Since 2017, it has helped to resettle only 32 displaced Venezuelans hosted in the region.
Considering Canada’s tradition of offering safe haven to displaced persons (and its own calls for increased responsibility sharing within the international refugee regime), more resettlement opportunities should be created for displaced Venezuelans in Latin America. This is particularly relevant for those displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, who will soon obtain TPS and thus qualify for UNHCR-assisted resettlement. In tandem with this, Canada should continue its capacity-building efforts and share its resettlement expertise with the region, all the while developing new solutions for displaced Venezuelans who are already in Canada.
Policy recommendations for Canada
- New third-country solutions in Canada
After displaced Venezuelans in Colombia obtain TPS, they will qualify for UNHCR-assisted resettlement. Canada should create a fair resettlement quota for that country and prioritize the admission of vulnerable groups, such as women who are at risk and those with medical needs.
At the same time, complementary pathways such as private sponsorship and the recently-created Economic Mobility Pathways Project could also start targeting displaced Venezuelans in Colombia. To this end, Canada should create new campaigns and initiatives to engage potential sponsors and partners.
- Doubling down on Canada’s resettlement expertise
Canada should continue sharing its resettlement and community sponsorship expertise with Latin American countries. Some countries in the region (such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay) are considered “emerging resettlement countries” and have the potential to play increasingly important roles in the region. Canada should continue supporting the expansion of pilot resettlement and community sponsorship programs in the region. This could be done through targeted donations, grants, and deeper cooperation with local authorities and stakeholders in these countries.
- Measures for Venezuelans already in Canada
Similar to new policies for residents of Hong Kong (and Hong Kong passport holders), the government should facilitate temporary and permanent residence mechanisms, as well as family reunification procedures for displaced Venezuelans already in Canada. Ideally, Venezuelans should also benefit from fee waivers and exemptions.
Luiz F. Leomil, a recent MA graduate, is beginning his PhD in political science at Carleton University this fall. Luiz has experience working with refugees in Brazil and Canada, and he also works on research projects covering migration, forced displacement, and humanitarian crises.
Photo Credit: Reg Natarajan in Bogotá via Wikimedia Commons.