More than eight years have passed since the situation in Venezuela began to implode, pushing millions of people to search for protection abroad. Today, the Venezuelan exodus is arguably the largest forced displacement situation in the world.1 Colombia is the primary destination for forcibly displaced Venezuelans abroad. Indeed, by October 2022, close to 3 million Venezuelans had fled to Colombia. Since the beginning of the crisis, Colombia has shown tremendous generosity towards Venezuelans, welcoming them, and taking concrete actions to ensure access to rights and their integration into the economy and society.2 The country took steps to grant regular status to Venezuelans, and foster their self-reliance, access to work, and inclusion into national systems. Most notably, in 2021, Colombia instituted a mass regularization program to grant legal status and work authorization to its Venezuelan population through the Estatuto Temporal de Protección de Migrantes Venezolanos (ETPV).
However, progress in Colombia is at risk. In the past year, Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, has changed the way the government responds to Venezuelan displacement. The new government dissolved many of the structures and policies that shaped the response. Petro implemented a new “policy of silence” around the Venezuelan situation in Colombia, which disregards the Venezuelan presence in the country and their specific needs. This has affected the coordination across government and non-government agencies and the efforts to integrate Venezuelans into the Colombian economy and society. The shift in the response has already had a significant impact on the conditions Venezuelans face in Colombia, affecting progress achieved on their economic inclusion.
Petro’s government has rightly maintained the Venezuelan regularization process, but there have not been any additional efforts to support their economic integration. As such, the future of Venezuelans’ economic inclusion in Colombia remains uncertain. In particular, obtaining formal jobs continues to be a major challenge for many Venezuelans, especially as Venezuelan professionals struggle to validate their credentials in the country. Informal jobs allow forcibly displaced Venezuelans to earn an income and survive. However, Venezuelans continue to struggle to find decent and stable jobs, facing exploitation and abuse in both formal and informal employment. Other aspects such as rising cost of living and lack of accessible housing affect Venezuelans’ ability to make ends meet. As a result, some eventually decide to re-migrate to another city or country in search of better opportunities. Others are at risk of being recruited by criminal groups.
The situation is exacerbated by major cuts in an already paltry funding environment from international donors. So far in 2023, donors have only funded 16 percent of the total needs for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) coordinated Venezuelan response—also known as the Response for Venezuelans (R4V). Donors have been implementing major cuts in their support for the Venezuelan response, decreasing funding for an already severely underfunded appeal. Humanitarian organizations in Colombia are facing major budget cut-outs, which is affecting the delivery of crucial programs to support Venezuelans. While Colombia is also receiving funds from the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF)3—a multi-donor trust that provides loans at below market rates and grants to large refugee hosting middle income countries that otherwise would not be able to access such financing—the changes in government structure are affecting the implementation of such programs.
In this context, Colombian municipalities are stepping up to support the integration of displaced Venezuelans. Many municipalities have opened centers where Venezuelans can seek help and guidance to access government services, such as registering to the social security and health systems, finding a job, or obtaining legal support. Plus, Bogotá and Medellín, the two largest Venezuelan-hosting municipalities in Colombia, are taking additional measures to promote the socio-economic inclusion of Venezuelans. Through these measures, many Venezuelans are accessing quality support at the local level to promote their integration.
In July 2023, Refugees International traveled to Colombia to examine the status of the response and the progress made toward the economic inclusion of Venezuelans. This report analyzes the situation of Venezuelan socio-economic inclusion in Colombia and the new dynamics under which Venezuelans join the Colombian economy. This report is a product of the Labor Market Access Initiative led by Refugees International and the Center for Global Development that focuses on expanding evidence and research around the economic inclusion of refugees and forcibly displaced individuals around the world.
To the Government of Colombia:
- Restore an effective ministerial-level coordination mechanism for the Venezuelan response with similar power and capabilities as the Gerencia de Fronteras. Such a mechanism should be properly staffed and financed and have the authority to coordinate across ministries to ensure that policies and programs are properly implemented.
- Follow through the implementation of existing policies to respond to the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis and foster their economic integration, including the implementation of the policies included in the CONPES 4100 and the Integral Migratory Law.
- Expand the regularization process eliminating cut-out eligibility dates for Venezuelans and ensuring the delivery of PPT cards to most Venezuelans in Colombia.
- Expand lines of communication and coordination with civil society organizations working in the Venezuelan response, including Venezuelan-led organizations.
- The Ministry of Housing, City and Territory should implement the Resilient Housing Project, ensuring that Venezuelans are properly included in the operations, policies, and investments.
To International Donors:
- Significantly increase funding for the Response for Venezuelans (R4V) appeal, which is currently funded far below the global average for humanitarian appeals. In particular, European donors should reverse recent declines in their support.
- Collaborate with the government of Colombia and multilateral development banks to ensure that humanitarian efforts are complementary to the broader integration agenda, providing incentives for Colombia to prioritize Venezuelan economic inclusion.
- Expand direct support to Venezuelan-led civil society service providers in Colombia. Donors should increase funding to civil society and other local groups, prioritizing refugee-led organizations.
- Increase support to municipalities in Colombia to ensure the inclusion of Venezuelans in local policies and programs, and to expand access for Venezuelans to local services. In particular, donors should continue to provide sustained support to the Intégrate Centers.
To Humanitarian Organizations:
- Prioritize interventions that reduce the specific vulnerabilities of Venezuelans that keep them from obtaining and keeping jobs in the formal economy, including expanding cash-based assistance, providing shelter, and rent support, among others.
- Conduct awareness campaigns for Venezuelans in Colombia on the benefits of formal employment. Create programs and policies in coordination with the private sector, to incentivize employment for Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the formal sector.
- Implement programs to improve conditions for those working in the informal sector and conduct studies to analyze the conditions of Venezuelans in the informal economy.
To the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF):
- Invest in studies and efforts to expand government’s awareness of the fiscal and economic gains linked to integrating Venezuelans in Colombia.
- Conduct an independent evaluation of its Colombia programs, particularly those that are still under implementation and their impact on Venezuelans.
- Consult with Venezuelan-led organizations in Colombia around the policies and programs implemented in the country.
- Incentivize the generation of new programs in Colombia by expanding grant support in the country, targeting value-added projects in areas such as expanding government capacity, supporting credential certification, fostering labor mobility, and boosting job generation.
Colombia has been the main destination for forcibly displaced Venezuelans abroad, hosting close to 3 million Venezuelans by October 2022 (see Image I). In 2021, the country announced the implementation of a mass regularization project through the implementation of the Estatuto Temporal de Proteccion para Migrantes Venezolanos (Temporary Protected Statute for Venezuelan Migrants, or EPTV for its Spanish acronym), which granted Venezuelans regular status for a ten-year period and opened pathways to residency. Alongside the regularization efforts, the country also implemented several initiatives to foster the economic inclusion of Venezuelans in the country, acknowledging their positive impact to the Colombian economy and society.
Image I: Distribution of Venezuelans per Department in Colombia
Source: Data from Migracion Colombia, October 31, 2022.
Most notably, the Colombian government implemented several initiatives to ensure the proper integration of Venezuelans, including the creation of a body responsible for coordinating the government’s Venezuelan response: the Gerencia de Fronteras. As part of these efforts, the Colombian government created a plan to foster the economic inclusion of Venezuelans, Colombian returnees, and host community members, called the Income Generation Strategy. In addition, Colombia created development plans that directly included Venezuelans, like the CONPES 4100—which included a series of policies to be implemented in the next ten years to ensure the socio-economic integration of Venezuelans in Colombia. Plus, in 2021, the country passed the Integral Migratory Law that established the guidelines and interinstitutional arrangements for migratory policy in Colombia, including provisions to respond to Venezuelan displacement in the country. These policies and strategies were key to the implementation of actions to support the economic inclusion of Venezuelans, and to the provision of a medium to long-term framework for the response – one that linked humanitarian action to broader development objectives.
Despite Colombia’s earnest efforts to promote the economic inclusion of Venezuelans, progress has been uneven. Many Venezuelans still face issues obtaining regular status and accessing the rights and services linked to their regularization—including access to work. Most Venezuelans still work in the informal sector, where they face exploitation and abuse. Obtaining formal jobs continues to be a major challenge for Venezuelans, particularly Venezuelan women and youth. Plus, the recent government transition in Colombia has shifted the way the country responds to the Venezuelan situation to one that no longer prioritizes the integration of Venezuelans in Colombia. Alongside the shift in government response, donor support has substantially decreased, affecting the implementation of the humanitarian response in the country.
An Abandoned Response
Over the past year, the government of Colombia has shifted the way it responds to forced displacement. The topic of Venezuelan displacement in Colombia is being increasingly politicized. This has affected the creation of evidence-based policies and programs that acknowledge and address the realities of forcibly displaced Venezuelans in Colombia and their host communities. The government of Colombia has dismantled many of the existing mechanisms that address the needs of Venezuelans and foster their inclusion. Now, the government of Colombia fails to directly acknowledge the presence of Venezuelans in Colombia and their specific vulnerabilities.
The De-venezolanization of the Response
The government of President Petro has shifted the narrative around Venezuelans from one that acknowledges their presence, to one that minimizes their place in Colombia. Local actors call this the “des-venezolanization” of the discourse. Since his presidential campaign, Petro has avoided directly addressing the topic of Venezuelans, focusing instead on the general umbrella of migration in Colombia. This has resulted in a policy of silence towards Venezuelans that maintains a low public profile on the topic of Venezuelan displacement and deprioritizes them from the government agenda. The policy of silence has translated into global platforms, where Colombia is no longer an outspoken advocate for the response of Venezuelan displacement in the region.
President Petro’s new policy of silence comes hand in hand with a strong relationship with the Maduro regime. Early on in his presidency, Petro re-started diplomatic relationships with Venezuela. This renewed relationship is linked to the implementation of the Colombian peace process, which is a main priority of Petro’s presidency. Caracas’ role has proven instrumental for Petro, helping to re-open a dialogue with the ELN following a meeting in Caracas in November 2022. In turn, Petro has also become a strong advocate for the Maduro regime.
The change in foreign policy regarding Maduro corresponds with shifts in domestic policies related to the Venezuelan response inside Colombia. The des-venezolanization of the response in Colombia may well be designed to facilitate good relationships with the Maduro regime, especially as Maduro has long denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Most recently, Petro met with other ten Latin American leaders, including Maduro, at the “Migration Summit” in Mexico. The ten leaders called for solutions to the Venezuelan displacement, including the lift of sanctions in Venezuela to contain migration in the region.
It is important to acknowledge that the Petro government continues to implement the mass regularization process for the Venezuelan population. Moreover, Venezuelans with the ETPV permit can register to the social security system and access health services, albeit with some difficulties. However, there has been little to no effort to implement additional policies that go beyond regularization and acknowledge the importance of inclusion. As some local actors told Refugees International, the government of Colombia seems to perceive the regularization process as the end of their efforts to support the Venezuelan population rather than the beginning of a path towards integration. By failing to acknowledge the existence of the population in need of support, President Petro is undermining prior efforts to integrate Venezuelans and meet Colombia’s international commitments.
Over the last year, the government has dismantled the coordinating structure in charge of the Venezuelan response the Gerencia the Fronteras. The Gerencia proved a successful coordination mechanism for the response. It enjoyed political backing at the highest-government levels and had the authority to oversee the implementation of policies and initiatives throughout the country. As it was directly under the supervision of the President, the Gerencia had the power to coordinate across Ministries at the highest-level and delegate responsibilities.
The dismantling of the Gerencia de Fronteras has created a leadership vacuum for the Venezuelan response. Local actors reported to Refugees International that the responsibilities are now under Migracion Colombia and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The immigration authority, Migracion Colombia, is leading all of the efforts around regularization (i.e. the roll-out of the ETPV). Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, through the Migratory Affairs Department, is now overseeing the overall government’s response and coordinating across ministries. To achieve this, the Migratory Affairs Department recently created a specialized bureau to coordinate the response across the different government bodies, called the “internal working group for the attention and socioeconomic integration of the migrant population.”4 However, stakeholders in Colombia reported that the new bureau is under-staffed and has no political power or authority to coordinate or mandate other ministries. This means that the coordination that happens at the bureau is not likely to translate into actions across other important actors outside of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Even without a coordinating structure, some government institutions continue to implement programs to support the Venezuelan population. For example, the Ministry of Labor implements employment training programs and the employment service for the Venezuelan population through the National Learning Service (SENA). However, there is no longer coordination at the ministerial level to ensure that these services are properly working for Venezuelans—specifically to address some of the barriers that continue to affect their access to programs and services in Colombia.
The dissolution of Gerencia has affected the continuation of important policies and programs to promote the economic inclusion of Venezuelans. For example, the Income Generation Strategy is no longer being implemented. As a local actor mentioned to Refugees International:
“The government programs exist for Colombian nationals and the government says that the migrants are already included in those programs, but that is not a reality because no one is coordinating.”
The lack of coordination has also affected the implementation of the CONPES 4100—a national development plan with procedures and budgets to coordinate the Venezuelan response across all government entities. The CONPES 4100 aligned the Venezuelan response with broader development objectives within Colombia in order to generate a win-win situation that benefits locals and Venezuelans alike. It included budget allocations for each ministry to implement the activities included in the plan, including financing from the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF) to support the integration of the Venezuelan population. However, local actors report that the government is not fully adopting the commitments established in the CONPES 4100.
In addition, actors on the ground reported that the government is not following through the commitments established in the new Integral Migratory Law from 2021.5 Among other things, the law considers the implementation of policies to foster the socio-economic integration of the migrant population in the country, fostering access to employment, financial inclusion, entrepreneurship, among other things.6 Given the lack of implementation of the law, Colombia’s Federal Attorney’s Office opened a case to investigate potential omissions on the implementation of the law at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Immigration Authorities.
The inadequate implementation of the CONPES 4100, the Income Generation strategy and the Integral Migratory Law is preventing the continuation of important policies and actions focused on ensuring the inclusion of Venezuelans in the country.
Lack of Collaboration with NGOs and RLOs
The Colombian government has stopped coordinating and exchanging information with humanitarian actors. Several organizations in Colombia reported to Refugees International that the government has closed all avenues for cooperation and coordination in the response. A senior international aid official observed:
“We do not know anything. They have not talked to us yet, and it’s been over a year [since the government transitioned]. We are trying to get information too, because we also do not know their plans or who will manage the response.”
The situation is even worse for Venezuelan-led organizations, as locals reported that the government does not want to meet or talk with them. As a local organization officer mentioned to Refugees International:
“We used to have an active communication with the government. If the PPT was not being properly implemented, we would call the Gerencia de Fronteras and we would try to solve [the problem]. But now, no one wants to talk to us. (…) We are not political, we just need to help the people in need.”
Venezuelan-led civil society groups lead much of the response in the country and are instrumental in communicating the needs of their communities to the government. However, without avenues for communication, these organizations cannot properly advocate for their communities. Nor can they provide feedback on the implementation of policies and programs that affect their communities.
Problems Accessing Regularization
Alongside the challenges emanating for the policy changes enacted by President Petro’s government, Venezuelans continue to face challenges that affect their economic inclusion in Colombia. As Venezuelans mainly work in temporary informal jobs or are self-employed, many continue to live day-by-day. In particular, many Venezuelans still face significant issues to access regular status. Regularization is an important aspect and pre-condition to ensure the protection and economic inclusion of Venezuelans in Colombia. With the creation of the Estatuto Temporal de Protección de Migrantes Venezolanos (ETPV) in 2021, the government fostered the regularization of most Venezuelans in the country—even if they entered the country irregularly. The mass regularization process granted status for Venezuelans for up to ten years, opening pathways to obtain residency, allowing them to work and join the social security system.
As the government transitioned to the new administration of Gustavo Petro, Colombia rightly continued with the implementation of the EPTV. By October 2022, there were 2.89 million Venezuelans in the country, out of which most were regularized or in the process of obtaining regular status. Only 311,729 Venezuelans remained without status. Despite progress achieved so far, some Venezuelans still face challenges to obtain regular status.
Many Venezuelans continue to irregularly enter Colombia and have no means of regularizing their stay.7 Only those Venezuelans who entered Colombia irregularly before January 31, 2021 are eligible to obtain the ETPV. Others who entered through official ports of entry are eligible only if they entered the country before May 28, 2023.
Local organizations in Colombia reported that, following the post pandemic border re-openings, Colombia is experiencing a significant number of entries and re-entries of Venezuelans. Much of this increased mobility from Venezuela into Colombia is for family reunification purposes, as NGOs highlighted to Refugees International. The story of “Alvaro” is a good example of the situation. He moved to Colombia during the pandemic in search of economic opportunities to support his family back in Venezuela that was in extreme need. In 2023, as the border reopened, his wife and his two toddlers entered Colombia to reunite with their father. However, while Alvaro has regular status, his wife cannot obtain a permit. Some local NGOs estimated that about 1 million Venezuelans have entered Colombia since 2023. However, there is no updated data from Colombia’s immigration authorities regarding the number of Venezuelans in the country.
Even with the EPTV, Venezuelans can have a hard time regularizing their status. An authorized EPTV permit does not ensure regularization. This is because the EPTV needs to have the physical permit card—called the Permiso de Permanencia Temporal (PPT), to be valid. After a Venezuelan applies for the EPTV in Colombia, they must undergo a series of steps, including completing a census survey and a biometric verification. Once the government approves the application, the individual can verify their status on the immigration authorities’ website.
The last part of the process is to obtain the physical PPT card that grants the EPTV status. The PPT is delivered to the individual’s original place of application. However, the Colombian government faced logistical issues to deliver the PPT cards, which resulted in long delivery times for the cards. This meant that by the time that the PPT cards arrived at the originally registered address or location, many Venezuelan applicants no longer resided there. As a local expert reported:
“By the time they would bring the PPT to Maicao, for example, the person would already have left for Medellin.”
The delay in the delivery of the PPT cards affected the implementation of the regularization process. This is because the Venezuelan population is highly mobile. Many Venezuelans could not afford to remain where they applied for the EPTV permit until their PPT card arrived. Moreover, some organizations expressed concerns as Venezuelans did not know how to request the permit cards to arrive in their new place of residency. As a result, a large proportion of Venezuelans that have an approved ETPV still cannot obtain regular status in practice. Of the almost 2.5 million Venezuelans registered to obtain the ETPV, 1.8 million have obtained their physical PPT card as of September 11, 2023.
To overcome this challenge, Migracion Colombia is implementing a new strategy to streamline the process of the ETPV, which includes the delivery of the PPT in one day. The government is setting up several regularization brigades to print PTP cards and distribute them to as many individuals as possible. Local actors reported that the new strategy to deliver the PPT in one day is the appropriate course of action. However, it is still unclear how many Venezuelans will be able to access these brigades. Furthermore, organizations on the ground fear that once these efforts conclude, there won’t be further action to ensure that the PPTs are delivered. As a local actor mentioned to Refugees International:
“There are so many delays around the PPT. But Migracion says that this is an issue with the regulation, as they are not obliged to deliver the document.”
The difficulties in the implementation of regularization permits not only restrict Venezuelan’s access to key services, but also significantly affect Venezuelans access to the labor market as regularization is a necessary precondition to support job formalization.
The mass regularization process was an important step for ensuring the economic inclusion of forcibly displaced Venezuelans, but it was only the beginning of a broader set of efforts required to ensure the proper economic inclusion in the Colombian economy. Even with regular status, most Venezuelans still face significant barriers to join the formal labor market.
Even with regular status, Venezuelans are struggling to find jobs in the formal labor market. A study conducted to analyze the effects of the previous regularization permit in Colombia—the Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP), found that the work permit did not translate into large effects on the formal labor market. While there was a slight increase in the number of Venezuelans obtaining formal jobs, the report concluded that mass job formalization of PEP-holders did not occur.8
One way to measure job formalization rates among Venezuelans in the Colombian economy is through the contributions to the social security system also known as Planilla Integrada de Liquidacion de Aportes (PILA). The latest PILA data of July 2023 shows that 130,278 Venezuelans with ETPV are contributing to the fiscal system, mostly as paid employees (see Table 2). By the end of July 2023, the government of Colombia had approved 1,902,743 ETPVS. This means that only about 6.8 percent of the Venezuelan population with an ETPV currently contribute to the social security system as part of the formal labor market.9 Despite the low levels of formalization, it is important to note that the rates of contribution have been increasing over the years, as shown on Table 2. Between 2019 to 2023, the number of Venezuelans contributing to PILA has increased by 86.7 percent.
Figure 2: Total Contributors to the Fiscal System (PILA) with PEP or PPT
* 2023 data covers until July 2023
** Total includes individuals that listed their gender as “undefined” and blank responses
Source: Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP), last updated July 10, 2023, data accessed on August 7, 2023.
Regularization alone is not enough to foster job formalization for Venezuelans. However, regularization allows forcibly displaced Venezuelans to reduce their vulnerabilities and access important services such as education and health.
The low job formalization rates among Venezuelans in Colombia call for policies to address the specific obstacles that Venezuelans face to access the formal labor market. This means addressing barriers faced by employers, as well as the barriers faced by the Venezuelan workforce. Based on a census survey in Colombia, some of the main obstacles that Venezuelans face to obtain a job include access to documentation, discrimination, and difficulties certifying qualifications. Validating credentials, in particular, has proven burdensome and costly for Venezuelans. Furthermore, low salaries, bad working conditions and time constraints influence Venezuelans’ decision to take a job. Other factors such as training employers on hiring practices for Venezuelans, creating incentives for employers to formalize Venezuelan workers, and taking steps to reduce discrimination in the workplace are also important aspects to consider.
The low levels of formalization among the Venezuelan population in Colombia are in part due to existing barriers that affect Venezuelans’ capacity to obtain and keep formal employment. In particular, local actors in Colombia reported increasing levels of desertion of formal jobs among the Venezuelan population. The abandonment of formal jobs is creating mistrust, which affects Venezuelans and employers alike, and translates into fewer formal job opportunities for Venezuelans. NGOs expressed to Refugees International that Venezuelans are leaving their jobs in the informal sector in increasing numbers for a variety of reasons. These included: a decision to relocate to another city or country, longer and inflexible working hours, and pre-existing vulnerabilities, like lack of affordable and accessible housing or lack of resources to afford basic needs in the first months of employment.
The situation is even more prevalent among Venezuelan women, especially those who, in addition to their jobs, have household or childcare responsibilities. As a result, many look for flexible employment opportunities that may be more obtainable in the informal sector. Many Venezuelan women opt for self-employment as a coping mechanism to survive. As a humanitarian official mentioned:
“Women need time. Time to prepare their resumes. Time to work. Time to enter an employment process. All while having to carry the full responsibility of their families on their backs.”
Furthermore, some Venezuelan-led organizations and international organizations in Colombia highlighted that some Venezuelans do not perceive formal employment as beneficial. As many Venezuelans face economic precarity, they are focused on meeting their most immediate needs, i.e., earning income to afford food and rent. Local actors reported that some Venezuelans perceive that their earning potential in the informal sector is higher than in the formal sector, with some struggling to see the medium- to long-term benefits linked to formal employment, like contributing to their pensions. Part of the problem is that most Venezuelans are offered entry-level jobs or lower salaries that their Colombian counterparts in the formal economy—even if they have many years of experience.
The high level of informal jobs in Colombia is a structural issue. The informal sector in Colombia employs more than 56 percent of the labor force. Importantly, wages in the informal sector can reportedly outstrip wages in some parts of the formal sector, and way above the minimum wage of COL$1,160,000—about U.S. $300 per month. As a result, many Venezuelans prefer to stay in the informal economy. Therefore, it will be important to improve conditions in informal employment and reduce vulnerabilities for those conducting informal work.
The rising costs of living in Colombia are making it harder for Venezuelans to make ends meet. By February 2023, inflation reached 13.8 percent – the highest level in 23 years. Inflation affects everyone in the country, but the poorest population are more heavily impacted. In Colombia, this includes Venezuelans who face a “double vulnerability.” The rise in the cost of living affects their income, as now they can afford less with the same resources. Plus, it also decreases the efficiency of the remittances they send home—as Venezuela also suffers from the effects of inflation. As Carolina,* a Venezuelan woman, told Refugees International:
“All of a sudden, it is impossible to afford life. I have a job thankfully, but it is the minimum salary. You cannot afford anything with that! I also need to help my family back home, but I can’t anymore.”
Indeed, many have the responsibility of supporting families back in Venezuela and their salaries are not enough as commodity prices increase. As Rodrigo,* a Venezuelan man, mentioned to Refugees International:
“Between the cost of rent, food and the remittances that I send home, I have nothing left.”
Lack of Affordable Housing
Access to affordable housing is a systemic issue in Colombia but disproportionately affects Venezuelans. Rent costs tend to be higher for Venezuelans due to discrimination and their status as foreigners. In addition, many Venezuelans lack stable jobs and savings and cannot pay monthly rent. As a result, many must resort to paying for daily room rentals—also known as inquilinatos, which are not only expensive, but also add to their insecurity. Many families with children have been pushed to the streets when they cannot afford to pay for a room. There are few shelters – not nearly enough for the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in need of housing or temporary shelter. Plus, as resources for the response become more limited, those Venezuelans in the deepest economic precarity face little support to overcome their situation.
Many Venezuelans are pushed to the side-lines of cities often in peri-urban informal settlements controlled by criminal organizations, as local actors reported to Refugees International. In these informal settlements, Venezuelans live with the most vulnerable Colombian population, including internally displaced people from conflict and climate change, afro-descendent and indigenous communities, and former guerrilla members. Furthermore, these communities have limited access to sanitation, water, and electricity.
The Effects of Insecurity
In some areas of Colombia, illicit economic activities such as human smuggling, extortion, illegal mining, coca production, or illegal lodging are the only source of income for the local communities. As forcibly displaced Venezuelans arrive in these areas, they are also pushed to join these activities, as local actors reported. Indeed, in departments like Arauca, Norte de Santander, and La Guajira, criminal groups are in control—these are also departments that host a large number of the Venezuelan population with the highest rates of vulnerability.
“Most Venezuelans are based in areas that have been heavily impacted by the armed conflict and where the victims reside, including forcibly displaced Colombians and indigenous communities.”
However, even in urban settlements, like Bogota or Medellin, Venezuelans are vulnerable to criminal groups. Many Venezuelans live in peri-urban areas controlled by armed groups. In these communities, Venezuelans are also targeted for extortion, as they must pay for safety and even services to the local criminal groups. Furthermore, local organizations mentioned that Venezuelans may be coerced into joining these groups. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable, as criminal organizations push them into prostitution to survive. Venezuelan youth may also fall prey to criminal organizations that recruit them for illicit activities to earn a living. Several organizations mentioned that the response needs to focus on the triple nexus, acknowledging the importance of peace alongside humanitarian and development responses.
As many Venezuelans struggle not only to integrate, but to afford life, many are moving from city to city in search of opportunities and stability. Such is the case of Laura,* a Venezuelan woman transiting in Medellin. Laura lived in Cali for six months but failed to secure a job. Laura worked in informal jobs, but she spent most of her income to afford rent. As Laura mentioned:
“Life was unsustainable, so I decided to leave.”
Laura walked for 22 days to reach Medellin. However, even in transit, she needs to engage in informal employment to survive:
“There is no shelter, no food. Everything is full.”
As many Venezuelans struggle to find opportunities in Colombia, some decide to undertake the dangerous trek through the Darien jungle in hopes of reaching the United States. Colombia is the epicenter of a mass migration flow through the Darien jungle. Data from immigration authorities in Panama indicates that in the first eight months of 2023, a record number of more than 333,704 individuals from more than 35 nationalities have irregularly crossed the Darien into Panama. More than 60 percent of these movements are Venezuelans (see Figure 3).
Source: Panama’s National Migration Service, last updated August 2023. Data accessed on November 9, 2023.
Organizations on the ground reported that the lack of opportunities and insecurity are some of the reasons many Venezuelans are leaving Colombia.
“It is cheap to cross the Darien. People do not know what they are getting into. But for many, this is the only choice they have left.”
Often, for many Venezuelans, the decision to cross the Darien jungle is driven by the failure of host countries like Colombia to integrate them in the local economy and society. As a survey conducted among individuals—mainly Venezuelans—crossing the Darien between November 2022 and January 2023 showed, 66.1 percent of those crossing the Darien do so because of their lack of employment.
The regional Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis has been one of the most underfunded forced displacement responsesin the world. According to data from UN OCHA, on average, donors funded 58 percent of the total global humanitarian appeals in 2022. The total funding for humanitarian appeals fell in 2023 to date, covering only 33 percent of the total requirements on average. Despite mass underfunding globally, the funding available for the UNHCR and IOM coordinated Venezuelan response, also known as the Response for Venezuelans (R4V), fall way below the global average. In 2022, the response was covered at only 36 percent of the total needs. And, so far in 2023, donors have funded only 16 percent of the total needs.
Colombia, the largest beneficiary of the response, has received close to $140 million in funding of the $664 million appealby October 2023. Indeed, Colombia’s needs are only funded by 21 percent, and yet, the country is receiving more than 50 percent of the total resources for the Venezuelan response in the Americas. In this context, aid agencies and civil society groups reported to Refugees International that donors seem to have “fully given up.” The last donor conference failed to raise significant additional support to fund the situation (see Figure II.) Worse, donors have signaled to Refugees International that no future donor conferences are scheduled. Donor disengagement is creating major uncertainty for aid agencies, civil society, and communities alike.
Figure II: Donor Pledges for the Venezuelan Response by Year
Note: There is no data on pledges for 2022. Data for 2023 does not account for the recent $451 million U.S. government pledge.
As data shows, donor support has substantially decreased in recent years. European donors in particular have significantly decreased their contributions in support of the Venezuelan response. For instance, the support from the European Commission alone decreased by close to $100 million between 2021 and 2023 (see Annex I). This is not counting bilateral support from other major European donors like Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Against this backdrop, the recent commitment of the U.S. government to provide an additional $451 million in support for the Venezuelan response in 2023 comes as welcoming news. The new pledge was announced during the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity Leaders’ Summit on November 6, 2023, with pledged assistance to fund humanitarian support through USAID and the Department of State.
The Role of Multilateral Development Banks
In recent years, Colombia has received some other sources of funding external to the humanitarian response. This includes support from development banks such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the World Bank. Many of these funds were channeled through the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF),10 a multi-donor trust that provides loans at below market rates and grants to large refugee hosting middle income countries that otherwise would not be able to access such financing. In Colombia, the GCFF has provided $134.79 million in financing to support five different projects, including for healthcare and housing to the Venezuelan population, as well as investments in Venezuelan’s economic inclusion (for more information, see Annex II).
For Colombia, most programs financed by the GCFF are merged with other development projects on broader sectors. For example, the program to expand healthcare to Venezuelans is only partially funded by the GCFF as the project is part of a larger structural loan to improve access to quality healthcare in Colombia. As such, GCFF programs are part of broader development investments in key sectors like health and housing—and have dedicated components to also benefit the Venezuelan population. This Bank financing helps leverage government investments in development that include the forcibly displaced population, thereby reducing the humanitarian and development gap. Currently, only two of these five programs are mainly designed to target Venezuelans. These programs are the project for “Colombia’s Social and Economic Integration of Migrants” and the “Program to Support Policy Reforms for the Social and Economic Inclusion of the Venezuelan Migrant Population in Colombia.”
GCFF funding has helped expand the inclusion of Venezuelans in Colombia. For example, the GCFF financed the implementation of the EPTV, supported the affiliation of Venezuelans into the social security and health system, and provided resources for the Ministries of Labor and Education to validate Venezuelans’ skills and credentials. However, the recent dissolution of government structures and waning interest in Venezuelan displacement under the new Colombian president are delaying in implementation of the GCFF funded programs. The effectiveness of current GCFF investments in Colombia is currently at risk, as are prospects for new financing for GCFF programs.
For example, one of the five programs financed by the GCFF in Colombia is the “Resilient and Inclusive Housing” project. The program includes a total of $136.6 millions in loans from the World Bank, including $21.7 million in concessional support from the GCFF. The program was created to improve the quality of housing and public space for vulnerable households, including Venezuelans in Colombia. The project should provide rental subsidies to 10,276 Venezuelan households and upgrading infrastructure in neighborhoods where migrants live, impacting 33,556 Venezuelan households.
However, the program has yet to start operations. Documents from the World Bank confirm that the program has faced significant delays. Officials in Colombia told Refugees International that these delays are due to the lack of willingness at Colombia’s Ministry of Housing, City and Territory to include the Venezuelan migrant population. Similarly, program reports highlight that making migrants a priority remains a challenge for the implementation of the program in Colombia. Given these dynamics, the changes in government policy towards including Venezuelans into programs poses a potential risk for the proper development of GCFF-funded projects.
The Important Role of Municipalities
In Colombia, municipalities are increasingly taking a leadership role in fostering the social and economic inclusion of Venezuelans. This is important as cities in Colombia host a large proportion of the total Venezuelan population in the country. Indeed, 46.7 percent of the Venezuelan population in Colombia live in only five municipalities (see Image I). This is not surprising, as metropolitan areas offer more economic opportunities. As a result, cities become attractive centers for forcibly displaced Venezuelans.
Several municipalities are taking innovative and comprehensive steps to ensure that Venezuelans are included in the local economy and society. Bogotá and Medellín, for example, are the two municipalities hosting the largest number of forcibly displaced Venezuelans in Colombia— 614,974 and 238,469 respectively. Both cities are also important economic centers. Their economic opportunities attract Colombians from all departments and migrants from other nations. The relatively heavy migration of Venezuelans into Bogotá and Medellín is putting a strain on the municipality’s services. Yet, these municipalities are opting for strategies to include the population in the societies and economies.
The Intégrate Centers
Several municipalities established centers to foster the integration of Venezuelans, called Intégrate. The Intégrate Centers are physical points where the Venezuelan population can seek help and guidance to access all of the services provided by the government, including registration to the social security and health systems; legal orientation; support to find employment; psychological support, among other services. As a municipal officer mentioned: “the goal is to have one point where they can find an answer to all they need in one visit.”
The Intégrate Centers serve as an important tool to ensure that those regularized status can obtain the benefits linked to their permits. Furthermore, they serve as an important point where the Venezuelan population in Colombia can receive support for all their needs. In these centers, the municipality also coordinates with humanitarian actors to help link those with specific needs with support. Case workers help create a roadmap of services for each person, considering their status in the country and the type of documents they have. All of the pertinent government ministries are present at the center and trained to help Venezuelans accessing the available services and programs.
These centers are funded by international donors. Currently, nine cities in Colombia have an Integrate Center, these are: Bogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Santa Marta and Riohacha. Most municipalities only have one center, with the exception of Bogota, which established three centers due to the large number of Venezuelan population in need. While the centers operate through the support of USAID, each center is dependent on the capacity of the city. As a consequence, the quality of services varies from each municipality.
The municipality of Bogotá is taking important steps in ensuring that Venezuelans are acknowledged as part of Colombian society. In particular, the municipality of Bogotá launched the campaign “Nuevos Bogotanos” or New Bogotanians, where the municipality acknowledges the Venezuelan population as locals and as part of the city. As part of the campaign, the municipality is addressing Venezuelan-specific concerns as the concerns of the new Bogotanians. Through this simple but effective change in language, the municipality is shifting the narrative of “othering” around Venezuelans, acknowledging them as important and active citizens of Bogota. As a municipal officer said:
“We do not call them Venezuelans, we call them Nuevos Bogotanos because they are part of our city and they are here to stay, we must welcome them.”
Medellín’s Experience with Community Leaders
In Medellin, the municipality acknowledged the importance of meaningfully including community leaders and Venezuelan leaders in the active creation of policies and programs to support the response. The municipality of Medellin recently established a Migration Bureau to coordinate the municipal response to the Venezuelan situation in the city. However, this bureau is characterized by the active and meaningful participation of Venezuelan community leaders in the decision-making process. As a municipal officer mentioned to Refugees International:
“If we were going to work with the migrant population, we needed to include the migrant population in the decision-making process.”
The Migration Bureau is part of a broader strategy to reduce xenophobia around the different neighborhoods, foster social cohesion, and improve the response. To achieve this, the municipality hired community leaders (half of them local and half of them Venezuelans) to bridge communication between the neighborhoods and the municipality—also known as territorial managers (gestores territoriales). Currently, the municipality is working with six territorial managers from the Venezuelan population. Simultaneously, the representatives of each neighborhood form part of the Municipal Migration Bureau, where they actively take place and vote on the decisions of the municipality related to the response. As a municipal officer said:
“Here they have a voice and a vote!”
Through the creation of the territorial managers and the establishment of the Migration Bureau, the municipality is working directly with the neighborhoods to address the collective needs and the new challenges related to the Venezuelan displacement. As a Venezuelan community leader in Medellin mentioned:
“In neighborhoods, invisible frontiers exist. But when we work together to solve the issues of the community as a whole, they realize that we are in this together.”
The vulnerability of Venezuelans in Colombia is on the rise. The spillovers of the pandemic on Venezuelans’ livelihoods left many without jobs and in an increased state of precarity. They struggle to pay the rent or cover basic necessities. There has been little progress to achieve Venezuelans’ economic inclusion in Colombia. The existing macro-economic challenges in Colombia exacerbate these vulnerabilities. Moreover, most of the policy and programmatic efforts to promote the economic inclusion of the Venezuelan population have ended with the transition of the Colombian government. This overall situation is pushing many Venezuelans to re-migrate.
As the largest host country for Venezuelans in the world, Colombia’s success in integrating this population into the economy remains paramount to the stability and overall success of the Venezuelan response.
 By June 2023, there were around 7.3 million forcibly displaced Venezuelans and by August 2023, there were around 6.2 Ukrainian refugees. The forced displacement situation does not count internally displaced people. https://www.r4v.info/es/refugiadosymigrantes and https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine
 The latest report by Migracion Colombia indicated that Colombia hosted 2,894,593 Venezuelans by October 2022. https://unidad-administrativa-especial-migracion-colombia.micolombiadigital.gov.co/sites/unidad-administrativa-especial-migracion-colombia/content/files/000112/5575_distribucion_venezolanos_2022_octubrepdf.pdf.
 The GCFF is a coordinated response by the international community, bridging the gap between humanitarian and development assistance and enhancing the coordination between the UN, donors, multilateral development banks, and benefitting (host) countries.
 Resolution PN-2023-14262, Section 21, Article 79. October 20, 2023.
 Law 2136 from 2021.
 Law 2136 from 2021, Chapter V.
 Based on Refugees International interviews with Venezuelans in Colombia.
 Note: It is important to mention that due to the issues in the implementation of the EPTV, only 1.767.501 EPTV permits had been issued, which means that in practice, not all of the approved EPTVs are valid for Venezuelans to work.
 Author’s calculations using data from the government of Colombia: https://2022.dnp.gov.co/DNPN/observatorio-de-migracion/Paginas/Salud.aspx#
 The GCFF is a coordinated response by the international community, bridging the gap between humanitarian and development assistance and enhancing the coordination between the UN, donors, multilateral development banks, and benefitting (host) countries.
The author would like to thank the many interviewees that generously gave their time to answer our questions, send us documents, and review our paper. In particular, I would like to thank the International Rescue Committee (IRC) team in Medellin for allowing us to join their brigade in Nueva Jerusalen. I would also like to thank Ana Maria Diez for her leadership and support during the research trip in Colombia, the program team at Refugees International for their insightful comments and edits, and the communications team for editing, design, and publication support. Finally, thank you to the IKEA Foundation and Conrad F. Hilton Foundation that generously funded this work.
Featured Image: A Venezuelan family poses for a picture after arriving to the Temporary Housing Center for Migrants San Antonio Casa Esperanza on September 25, 2022. Photo by Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images.