The migratory wall facing refugees
What is it like to migrate to Colombia and the United States? The stories of Johan and Sonia, two of the 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced around the world.
Before leaving Venezuela for Colombia, Johan worked for Movistar as a telecommunications engineer. Today, three months after arriving by bus to Bogotá, the young man of 22 years sells cookies and candies on Transmilenio buses.
Thousands of kilometers to the north, in Texas (US), Sonia cleans houses and offices. She fled Mexico after members of the judicial police sexually abused and tortured her, before accusing her of participating in drug trafficking. Both were forced to leave behind everything because of the social and political crises facing their countries.
Sonia, who is now 30, used to live in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas along with her daughters, where she ran her own restaurant. There she faced extortion by the police—the same ones who tortured and assaulted her. They had her imprisoned for a year before a judge declared her innocent and opened an investigation against the police. Sonia and her family received threats in retaliation, and decided to leave for the US.
In contrast, Johan decided to leave his country for fear of being trapped should the border be indefinitely closed. Violence in the streets, repression of protests, and constant violations of the freedom of expression and—due to the food and medicine shortages—the right to health made it impossible for Johan to survive in Venezuela. In spite of living at home with his parents, Johan’s salary was not enough to afford food for his family. The minimum wage in Venezuela is approximately 250,000 bolivars per month ($74 USD), while basic food supplies can cost around one million bolivars ($296 USD).
Johan and Sonia are two of the 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced around the world as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and violations of human rights. According to the latest report on the global patterns of forced displacement from the UNHCR, of this nearly 66 million people, approximately 39% are like Johan and Sonia, who not only had to leave their homes, but also had to cross national borders in search of protection and means of survival.
But migrating to survive does not guarantee to anyone a life free from necessity. The attention migrants receive depends on the development of the country to which they arrive, existing policies and programs to assist them, the country’s experience in managing migration flows, and, of course, the political willingness of the government regarding migration.
In April, when Johan crossed the Simon Bolivar international bridge to Cúcuta, a Colombian immigration official authorized his entry as a “tourist” for 180 days —as has been done for thousands of Venezuelans. Although it is easy to identify the looks of those arriving to Colombia fleeing the humanitarian crisis, the absence of a special permission addressing their situation has forced Colombia Migration to treat displaced persons as tourists, which bars them from working legally and accessing health services, except in cases of emergency. Before dedicating himself to informal sales, Johan was subject to exploitation and mistreatment. He worked for far less money than his Colombian counterparts and was required to work grueling days without compensation.
Sonia, compelled by threats, crossed the Bravo River by boat at the point between Reynosa (Tamaulipas) and McAllen (Texas). A few meters before entering the US, she was detained by border patrol agents who processed her case and transferred her to a detention center. There, migration authorities spoke to her about incomprehensible matters exclusively in English. She was imprisoned for close to five months, with limited access to communication and visits, until the American Gateways organization legally represented her, through which she was recognized by the United States as a refugee. Currently, Sonia has regularized her migratory situation and is legally permitted to work.
In Johan’s case, the problem is that in Colombia, current migration policies do not provide a clear route for Venezuelans to receive the humanitarian attention that they need. While the UNHCR has insisted that Venezuelans leaving their country as a result of the current humanitarian crisis should be treated as refugees, and despite the fact that Colombian legislation could allow for such treatment, temporal and informational barriers limit the realization of this process. For example, it is only possible to make the request at the moment of entering the country, or within the two following months—which is not enough time considering the conditions in which many people arrive. For them, the priority is to find a roof to sleep under and food for each day. In the case of Johan, no one informed him of this possibility until three months after he had crossed the border.
His options are limited to applying for a temporary work visa, should an employer decide to hire him—but to do so he must pay $52 USD (540,269 bolivars) just to have the application reviewed, and $252 USD should it be approved. Given Johan’s impoverished situation, such a requirement is impossible.
The cases of Johan and Sonia exemplify two types of responses to humanitarian crises from the global north and the global south. They reveal the impacts (positive and negative) that policies and the routes of attention of receiving states have on these populations. Although the US has both a structured immigration system with judicial and administrative paths for accessing humanitarian visas, and an organized civil society to represent the rights of migrants, the use of detention as a means of controlling migration not only violates the right to liberty, but also has grave impacts on the physical and mental health of those who enter the system looking for protection. Added to this is the recent suspension of the refugee protection and resettlement program by the Trump administration.
In Colombia, the lack of clear, rapid, and flexible routes of attention has rendered many refugees arriving to the country invisible, swelling the strands of poverty in cities. Nevertheless, to respond to the gravity of the situation, the government has worked on a resolution that would provide temporary residence to Venezuelans who entered the country legally, allowing them to receive work permits and access social security. The migration policies of the United States and Colombia each have much to learn, so that those in situations like Johan and Sonia can have access to the protection they need, regardless of the country to which they arrive. The governments ought to respect international obligations and remember that human rights are not lost when one crosses a border.
Foto: Jonathan McIntosh / Wikipedia – Creative Commons