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How Colombia’s Migration Policy Relates to Stronger Justice Systems

Nate King is a 2022 McCain Global Leader. He serves as the director of U.S. Congressional Affairs at International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization that partners with local authorities to protect people in poverty from violence. Nate leads IJM’s strategic engagement with U.S. Congress, working with legislators and their staff to shape U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking and violence against women and children (VAWC) through legislation and funding mechanisms.

In a year that marks 200 years of diplomatic relations for the U.S. and Colombia, Colombia has also experienced a significant shift in its political climate. On Aug. 7, the country inaugurated its first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, and his running mate Francia Márquez, its first Afro-Colombian vice president. With this change in leadership, the international community will track closely the actions of a new administration in Colombia – some with hope, and some with trepidation. Many Western Hemisphere watchers will keep a close eye on how Colombia’s policy toward Venezuela shifts or remains consistent under a Petro government. Observers will be especially attuned to the treatment of Venezuelan migrants who have flowed into the country in recent years, seeking economic opportunity made impossible in their home country by a repressive government.

The week prior to this historic inauguration, I traveled to Colombia, joining my counterparts of the 2022 McCain Global Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere to study the dynamics of migration policy. During the Changemaker Tour, we heard from NGO representatives and faith leaders, met with government officials from both Venezuela and Colombia, learned from staff at the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and engaged with a representative from the U.S. Embassy. This tour gave us firsthand insights on the variety and complexity of policy and humanitarian challenges caused by surges in migration, as noted by recent reporting in the Washington Post that 1,200 Venezuelan children are trapped in the Colombian child welfare system, many of whom authorities have been unable to reunite the children with their families.

Understanding Colombia’s pioneering approach to migration policy

We also gleaned a sense of how Colombia is navigating the issue of irregular migration differently than other governments in the hemisphere. In early 2021, then-President Iván Duque announced a new policy toward Venezuelan migrants that would allow them to live and work legally in Colombia for 10 years, if they register with the government. Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, praised the “historic” decision. “It is a life-changing gesture for the 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans who will now benefit from added protection, security, and stability while they are away from home,” he said, also noting that this policy “serves as an example for the region and the rest of the world.”

In June 2021, this significant policy announcement was followed by the reopening of Colombia’s border with Venezuela, which had been closed for 14 months in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In all our conversations with policymakers and NGO leaders while traveling in Colombia, I was struck by the frequency with which they referred to Venezuelans as brothers and neighbors – not as foreigners, a problem to be dealt with, or a burden on public systems. The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cúcuta, Monsignor José Libardo Garcés Monsalve – whose churches were feeding between 4,000 and 7,000 people per day at the height of the migrant surge – told us about the challenges migrants had faced in finding work but that it was now common “to see a Venezuelan brother all around the city.”  One Colombian legislator expressed frustration at the border closure driven by COVID-19, pronouncing a sense of duty to aid migrating Venezuelans, “These are our neighbors. We share language, culture, and music. How could we not help?”

That help continues to be needed. Per U.N. and IOM officials who briefed us, official data shows that over 4,000 Venezuelans are crossing the border daily. However, the actual number of people crossing the border is likely much higher, as many migrants fear mistreatment or forced bribery to gain access to the official border crossing. Our cohort spent a day in Cúcuta, the capital city of Norte de Santander, a border region to Venezuela where many of these crossings are happening. We even visited the Simon Bolivar Bridge in Cúcuta to see the situation at the border firsthand. I was moved at the sight of families with young children and people rolling suitcases through dusty walkways – a powerful visual of the decision that millions of Venezuelans have been compelled make in search of a better future.

Physical security for citizens and migrants should be a Petro priority

As recently highlighted by WOLA’s Adam Isacson and Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, citizen security and protection for vulnerable populations should be among the top priorities for Colombia’s new administration, but this effort will not be without significant challenges. Polls show that confidence in the Colombian National Police is at its lowest level in nearly a century. Even so, progress is possible, especially through government collaboration with strategic civil society actors.

My colleagues at International Justice Mission (IJM) Colombia are working in partnership with the Colombian government to be a part of that progress. Our delegation from the McCain Institute received a briefing from the IJM Colombia team about the development of a holistic and locally informed policing model to protect citizens from violence and insecurity in Tibú, Norte de Santander. The work of IJM in the border region is especially important because violence, particularly sexual violence, is such a common experience for migrants. According to the 2018 Violence against Children and Youth Survey (VACS) led by the Colombian government, 3 out of 5 girls under the age of 18 were victims of multiple events of sexual violence. In addition, a 2020 survey conducted by the Colombian government found that 56% of Colombians do not utilize the public justice system in the instance of a crime.

Governments in the Americas must do more to keep people safe from violence

Responsive, trauma-informed law enforcement and social services must be a focus for governments everywhere in the Western Hemisphere – and even more so for policymakers who need to respond to irregular migration. Strengthening the public justice system to protect people from violence benefits citizens and offers protection and refuge to vulnerable migrants living in or transiting through a foreign country.

Governments across the Western Hemisphere will continue to grapple with one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world – a crisis driven by the displacement and forced migration of people throughout the continent. Millions have fled Venezuela and flooded countries such as Colombia, and thousands of migrants have been forced to leave the Northern Triangle and attempt the dangerous journey north to Mexico and the southern border of the United States. As policymakers consider responses to irregular migration, the strengthening of public justice systems should be at the forefront of the discussion.

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DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Nate King
Publish Date
August 24, 2022