Over half a million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia in recent years, and the flow looks set to continue
IN THE second half of 2017, about 210,000 Venezuelans entered Colombia, adding to the 340,000 who had already fled there in recent years. Local governments on the Colombian side of the border are struggling to absorb the influx and provide the migrants with food, medicine and shelter. Colombia tightened border controls with Venezuela in February (as did Brazil) but, with its impoverished neighbour due to hold presidential elections in May that few expect to be free and fair, it seems likely that migrants will continue to flood in.
The exodus has been triggered by the increasingly dire economic situation in Venezuela, where inflation reached 2,600% last year, according to opposition politicians. Nicolás Maduro, who took over as president upon the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, continues to suppress political opposition. Food shortages in supermarkets are common. A recent study by three top Venezuelan universities found that 64% of people surveyed had lost over 11kg in weight in 2017. And state-controlled food distribution centres are firmly in the hands of the military, who steal much of it and sell it on the black market. To make matters worse, when they get to Colombia, the migrants are not considered to be refugees in the eyes of international law, as they have not suffered direct political persecution nor are they fleeing war. The plight of many is still desperate.
The flow of migrants across the border is, in some ways, a reverse. A 52-year civil war forced many Colombians to flee into Venezuela. More than 7m were internally displaced, too. But in 2016 the Colombian government signed a controversial peace deal with the FARC, a leftist group, ending the war. The country is still picking up the pieces. Now other armed groups have moved into the extortion and drugs trades that the FARC once used to fund its political ambitions. These groups caused the displacement of 3,000 Colombians in the first 45 days of this year alone. The deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the neighbours does not help. Socialist Venezuela has often been at odds with Colombia, a key American ally. The Venezuelan leadership continues to reject international humanitarian aid, since receiving it would force Mr Maduro to accept that his policies have created a crisis.
In order to stem the flow of migrants, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, recently announced the termination of a transitory border-card scheme, which allowed Venezuelans to cross the border freely to buy food and medicine. He also ordered an increase of 3,000 border guards along the porous 2,250km (1,400-mile) border and announced a task force that would keep homeless Venezuelans from camping out in public squares in the city of Cúcuta, the arrival point for many migrants. Colombian officials have visited refugee camps in Turkey to assess how best to tackle the crisis and Rex Tillerson, the American secretary of state, offered assistance on a recent visit. Authorities announced the new measures had reduced the number of migrants by 30%, but that figure is only for formal entries—no one knows how many people are still slipping across the border unofficially. Colombia, too, is in the midst of an election campaign, and the perceived threat of Venezuelan socialism is frequently used to rally voters to the right and centre-right parties. Looking at what left-wing populism has done to its neighbour, many Colombians are wary of following a similar path.