The Venezuelan Immigration Crisis and Colombian Economic Strain

May 23, 2018


            Venezuela and Colombia have a unique and extended history of immigration that has been tested over time. During the past two decades Venezuela was the richest and most egalitarian country in the region attracting immigrants from all around Latin America. Colombians were attracted to the country in search of economic opportunity as well as safety from the extended war between the Colombian government and the FARC. Until recently, the FARC had been a rural based, armed rebel group seeking political representation in Colombia. The border between Venezuela and Colombia has not seen immigration flow in just one direction. Many affluent Venezuelans left for Colombia to escape from the socialist and authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez during his rule from 1999 through 2013; another wave of Venezuelan immigrants started arriving in Colombia in 2015. These immigrants come from every class of Venezuelan society, and they are all abandoning their lives in Venezuela to escape its imploding economy.

            The Venezuelan economy has been moving towards crisis since 2014 with the beginning of a decline in oil prices. Government mismanagement, economic reliance on oil exports, runaway hyperinflation, as well as food and medicine shortages have left Venezuelans in a difficult predicament. Many people have been left with no other choice but to leave their homes behind (Otis).

            This immigration crisis has largely gone unnoticed by international organizations and news agencies. The size of the migration into Colombia is comparable to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh or the Syrians in Germany, but the amount of media attention for these crises differ significantly. There are three different types of Venezuelan immigrants that all present different problems to the Colombian government. It is estimated that over 650,000 Venezuelans have passed through Colombia on their way to settle in other countries (Cobb). Over one million Venezuelans have applied for a special migration card created by Colombia to address the current crisis. These cards allow migrants to cross the border legally for a short period of time to obtain food and medicine or even work in Colombia. On an average day in 2017, 30,000 Venezuelans would use these migration cards to cross the border (BBC). The immigrants presenting the largest concern for the Colombian government are those that are trying to permanently settle in Colombia. Over 550,000 Venezuelan immigrants are currently living in Colombia while only 200,000 have permission to stay (BBC). Many of the poorest migrants, unable to afford to travel deeper into Colombia, have settled in now crowded border towns such as Cucuta. The UN Secretary General has promised continued support for Colombia, but any country would struggle to take on the amount of migrants in question.

            Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, has largely been welcoming to the Venezuelan people over the past two years. Recently, however, Santos has stepped up anti-immigration measures. Santos, with the backing of his party in Congress, has ceased to issue new daily migration cards and has increased border security (Rosati). Santos faces approval ratings hovering around thirty percent as Colombia moves closer to elections next week on May 27th, 2018. The handling of the immigration crisis promises to be a divisive political issue.

            The Colombian economy grew at 1.8% last year. This rate is cause for concern when compared to the roughly 5% growth in GDP only six years prior to 2017 (Gillespie). As the Venezuelan economy continues to collapse, Colombia faces other issues on top of the influx of immigrants. President Santos’s administration has been plagued by recent corruption scandals. The Trump administration has proposed substantial cuts in foreign aid to Colombia in response to the increase in production of coca (the plant used to produce cocaine). Oil is Colombia’s largest export, so the current price level of oil has also had a negative effect on Colombia’s current account. On top of this Standard & Poor recently cut Colombia’s credit rating making it harder for Colombia to finance any deficits. The recent peace agreement with the FARC has been extremely controversial amongst the domestic population (Gillespie). Military and oil industry spending was tightened and taxes were raised to help fund the expensive peace deal. Santos has promised the FARC guaranteed political representation in Congress, land reform, economic aid (in the form of money, food, and medicine), and rural infrastructure projects (Kraul).  One estimate puts the cost of the peace deal at 5% of the annual budget for the next ten years (Kraul).

            For now it appears that the Colombian government is going to push forward with more restrictive immigration policies as well as the FARC peace deal. The political future of Colombia is unpredictable as they move towards elections that will likely decide how the government handles these two major issues after May. Despite everything the Colombian economy has still managed continued growth. Although Colombia's economy is not currently experiencing a crisis, the problems presented by the immigration crisis should not be underestimated by any regional or international actor.


About Author(s)

Wesley Eckstein
Wesley Eckstein is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Economics and Political Science.