At the Crossroads of Uncertainty: Venezuelan Migration to Colombia

Juan Thomas Ordóñez, Hugo Eduardo Ramírez Arcos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


THE SHARED 2,219-KILOMETER BORDER between Colombia and Venezuela was once considered one of the most dynamic borders in Latin America, as thousands of people would cross back and forth daily. The nature of mobility between the two countries has changed dramatically over the past decade, and with it the social geography of both nations. Beginning in the 1950s, large waves of Colombians migrated to Venezuela, an oil rich neighbor, where many found work and economic opportunities in Venezuela's social welfare state that were not available at home. The Colombian armed conflict also pushed hundreds of thousands of people toward Colombia's northeastern border, leading many to cross and seek refuge there in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2011, Colombians made up the largest population of foreigners living in Venezuela, almost 700,000 in total (Mejía Ochoa, 2012).

Today, these trends have reversed. Venezuela's economic and political strife has led more than three million Venezuelans to emigrate over the past six years, more than a third of them seeking better lives in neighboring Colombia (International Organization for Migration, 2018b). Among the migrants are Venezuelans seeking to settle in the country, people in transit to other destinations, and Colombian returnees. By September 2018, Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Relations estimated about 936,000 Venezuelans were in the country with the intent to stay (about half of these had regular migration status). Additionally, in the first nine months of that year they calculated that 724,000 more Venezuelans had entered Colombia on their way to other destinations. The official number of Colombian returnees is around 300,000 (World Bank, 2018, p. 50).

The recent influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants annually from Venezuela has become an issue of governance and security in Colombia over the past four years in both traditionally porous border areas and more broadly throughout the country. With a conservative estimate of one million Venezuelans living in Colombia, cities, towns, and rural municipalities across its Caribbean and Andean departments1 now face unexpected pressure on their institutions, especially their health and education systems (World Bank, 2018, p. 17). The labor market is also under [End Page 158] strain, as migrants enter the formal and informal economies, purportedly competing for jobs with the locals. Likewise, increases in crime rates across Colombia (both real and perceived), along with the politicization of Venezuela's crisis in the run-up to Colombia's May 2018 presidential elections, have given rise to outbreaks of xenophobia and the criminalization of Venezuelans, especially young people. In a country historically riddled with crime and violence, the media seems flooded with images of migrant youth who are blamed for otherwise common criminal activities.

The Colombian government's response to the massive flow of migrants initially concentrated on the border, and then slowly turned toward regularizing undocumented migrants settling in different parts of the country and providing humanitarian assistance and access to social services to the most vulnerable populations. Though many of these efforts are well intentioned, much public and political debate about migration in Colombia, including academic discussions about its impact, focus too narrowly on short-term effects and tend not to look beyond the assumed temporality of the problem. The state, multilateral organizations, and NGOs have all responded to the crisis under the banner of a humanitarian emergency and focused their interventions on immediate responses to the issue of migration alone. We suggest that the relatively young age of the migrant population, combined with significantly urban settlement trends, has the potential to produce important and long-lasting shifts in the distribution of social and economic resources in specific areas throughout Colombia. A more regionally specific perspective on the mid- and long-term effects of migration on economic and social development has been absent from most political, economic, and even academic discussions.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)158-164
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Latin American Geography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 1 2019


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