Searching for Home: How COVID-19 Threatens Progress for Venezuelan Integration in Colombia

Read the report in Spanish.


Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has created dramatic new levels of humanitarian need. Marginalized groups—including the world’s more than 70 million forcibly displaced people—are being particularly hard hit. For Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia, the pandemic has hardened barriers to social and economic integration. With non-essential workers required to stay home, public services strained, resources diverted, and charities operating at reduced capacity, displaced Venezuelans find themselves in a situation of heightened vulnerability. Many have lost or risk losing access to income, housing, food, and other basic needs.

The Colombian government has made earnest efforts to include Venezuelans in its pandemic response. It has established Venezuelans’ right to testing and treatment for the coronavirus and is working with humanitarian organizations to help keep vulnerable individuals afloat. However, even before COVID-19, the government lacked the capacity to address the full extent of displaced Venezuelans’ needs. Indeed, Colombia had warned donors that it needed more help to support the millions of Venezuelans in and continuing to arrive in the country. However, the international community has provided relatively meager levels of funding in response.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is decimating the Colombian economy and exacerbating what was already a challenging humanitarian situation. It has disproportionately affected displaced Venezuelans, leading tens of thousands to return to Venezuela—a country where political turmoil, economic failure, institutional collapse, repression, and violence endure. This reverse migration, undertaken despite the acute risks it entails, is a tragic indication of the desperation confronting Venezuelans inside Colombia.

Significant progress is at stake. Colombia has done much over the years to welcome its neighbors as their homeland implodes, creating important opportunities to help many integrate into Colombian society. Now, the government needs to move quickly to protect the forcibly displaced from the ravages of the pandemic. It is, indeed, trying to provide Venezuelans relief even as it responds to the needs of its own citizens. However, donors have failed to match this solidarity with the funding to enable a truly comprehensive response. The international community must step up and provide far more support for Colombia to adequately respond to the needs of displaced Venezuelans.

“Donors have failed to match this solidarity with the funding to enable a truly comprehensive response.”


For years, Venezuelans living under Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime have endured political turmoil, economic and institutional collapse, and blatant human rights violations. By May 2020, more than 5 million Venezuelans had left their country, creating a regional humanitarian emergency and the second largest displacement crisis in the world. Neighboring Colombia hosts more than 1.8 million Venezuelans, more than any other country by far. The Colombian government has undertaken an impressive response from the start. It has largely kept its borders open, mobilized humanitarian aid, extended rights and services, and allowed many Venezuelans to regularize their status. The government coordinates its response with the international community and civil society through the UN-led Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform (Response for Venezuelans—R4V) and its corresponding national mechanism, the Interagency Group for Mixed Migration Flows (GIFMM for its Spanish acronym).

However, Colombia’s generous response was taxing its already strained institutions even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Venezuelans often cannot access, in practice, the rights they have on paper. Many lack adequate healthcare, shelter, education, and work opportunities. More than half of Venezuelans in Colombia—or more than 1 million people—have irregular migratory status. They do not enjoy the same protections, services, and opportunities as Venezuelans with regular status. In the context of a pandemic, this lack of legal status puts both them and their host communities at greater risk.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis is threatening to overwhelm some of Colombia’s social services. As of May 20, 2020, there were 16,935 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 613 deaths. On March 17, 2020, several days after first closing its border with Venezuela, Colombian President Iván Duque declared a state of emergency and sealed all borders. On March 24, he imposed “mandatory isolation” through a nationwide stay-at-home order. Through presidential decrees, Duque has introduced many special health, security, and economic measures to respond to the crisis. On May 19, 2020, he extended the nationwide lockdown for a fourth time, until May 31, while pursuing a gradual re-opening that began in late April. Still, most non-essential workers must stay home, schools are closed, large gatherings are prohibited, and many migration services have been suspended.

COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Displaced Venezuelans

The restrictions—common to many countries’ responses to the public health crisis—have a disproportionately negative impact on Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Many live in over-crowded conditions where social distancing and self-isolation are impossible. Around 90 percent of Venezuelans in Colombia work in the informal economy, earning just enough to survive. The lockdown greatly affected these jobs. From March 31 to April 8, 2020, the GIFMM conducted a Joint Rapid Needs Assessment among 737 Venezuelan households in Colombia. In the survey, 48 percent of households reported having no source of income. Of those with income, 84 percent said it was insufficient to cover their basic needs. Just 20 percent of households said paid work was one of their principal sources of income, compared to 91 percent before the lockdown.

Unable to work, deprived of social protections, and lacking savings or support networks, Venezuelans cannot afford food, rent, or other basic needs. Thousands protested in Bogotá in late March after mass evictions took place. Some landlords expelled Venezuelans because they had not paid rent, while others evicted their Venezuelan tenants in anticipation of the lockdown they knew would deprive them of income. Although a presidential decree on April 15 imposed a moratorium on evictions that also protects refugees and migrants, civil society representatives told Refugees International that some landlords have ignored the measures. Meanwhile, many of the organizations to which refugees and migrants might normally have turned for help in such desperate times—including in shelters and soup kitchens—have partially or fully suspended operations because of the lockdown.

Venezuelan women and girls are especially vulnerable during this time. Rates of domestic violence against women have been on the rise during lockdowns across Latin America. Venezuelan women and girls evicted from their homes are at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. Already before the public health crisis, the urgent need to support family members sometimes led Venezuelan women and girls to resort to negative coping mechanisms, including survival sex.

Bi-national indigenous groups are also at particularly high risk. Conditions inside Venezuela have driven many members of these communities to move to Colombia in recent years. There, they have faced social marginalization; poor access to healthcare, education, sanitation, and economic opportunities; and threats to their traditional lifestyles. They often settle in remote areas in border regions where they face threats by armed groups. Many remain undocumented, including the Yukpa community, whose binational status the government does not recognize. Civil society groups who work with these communities told Refugees International that the outbreak of COVID-19 has heightened their concerns about indigenous groups’ lack of access to healthcare and humanitarian aid. Although the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has increased assistance for indigenous communities since March 2020 and launched COVID-19 prevention efforts, its capacity to support these groups in the immediate and longer term is limited.

Many of these negative effects also harm the most vulnerable Colombians, including nearly 8 million people internally displaced by conflict. However, even with special provisions the Colombian government has made, Venezuelans lack the same legal protections Colombians do. This is particularly true for the majority of Venezuelans in the country irregularly. One UN representative in Bogotá with whom Refugees International spoke by phone warned that Venezuelans were confronting multiple threats. After first fleeing Venezuela, some joined the ranks of Colombians affected by the ongoing internal conflict. Recent surges of violence have triggered mass internal displacements, particularly in the border regions where Venezuelans enter the country. Once settled, Venezuelans are often victims of discrimination and sexual or labor exploitation. Now, the pandemic adds another dimension to their struggles even as it complicates the ability of the government and NGOs to respond.  

Indeed, humanitarian groups have had to determine whether and how to adjust their operations in light of restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. The government does consider lifesaving humanitarian operations to be “essential services.” However, not all humanitarian groups—which vary from large UN agencies to small faith-based charities—have the resources and personnel to operate in this crisis environment. Some have been able to adapt and continue providing services while complying with physical distancing orders and other restrictions. For example, they deliver individualized food kits rather than operating communal food kitchens or conduct orientations online. Others, however, have had to reduce operations or shut down. The result is that less critical support is available to displaced Venezuelans.

One area most affected is Cúcuta, a city along Colombia’s northeastern border with Venezuela in the administrative department of Norte de Santander. The government and international community have mobilized a robust humanitarian response there in recent years. Just off the Simón Bolívar International Bridge—the primary official crossing point to and from Venezuela—government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs maintain a large humanitarian assistance center (CENAF, for its Spanish acronym). However, in response to the pandemic, many services were closed or significantly reduced. Some had become less critical as the government’s enforcement of the border closing meant fewer people were seeking services in the area. Others, however, could not be sustained under the new circumstances; some NGOs operating nearby reported cutting their capacity by half.

The humanitarian impact of closing the border and these services is significant. Typically, when the border is open, around 40,000 people enter Colombia each day. About 2,000 of them are seeking refuge inside Colombia, but the vast majority are “pendular migrants.”. The latter cross frequently—even daily—to purchase goods, attend school, receive medical treatment, or seek other aid before returning to Venezuela. In Cúcuta, all of these individuals, and many Colombians who live in the host community, make use of the humanitarian services usually provided at the border. After the outbreak of COVID-19, the border closure reduced crossings at official border points by as much as 90 percent. Those who can enter regularly meet criteria for humanitarian exceptions, such as having critical or chronic medical conditions that require treatment in Colombia.

However, those who do not meet the criteria for exceptions are forced to cross irregularly. They use dangerous unofficial routes known as trochas that armed groups often control. Although the largest of these groups—the National Liberation Army (ELN for its Spanish acronym)—declared a one-month ceasefire in late March, residents continue to report fighting among groups resulting in death and displacement. At the end of April, the ELN announced it would not extend the ceasefire despite the continuing health emergency. Venezuelans who cross through the trochas are largely at the mercy of these armed groups and at risk of getting caught in the crossfire. In addition, the government’s inability to monitor these unofficial routes means that it has an incomplete picture of mobility in the midst of a pandemic. The number of individuals crossing irregularly appears to have fallen since the border closure, but precise estimates are not available.

The government of Colombia allows limited humanitarian exceptions for a population in great need. UNHCR has determined that the majority of Venezuelans meet the criteria for requiring international protection on the basis of the Cartagena Declaration, which Colombia has adopted into its national law.1 Refugees International shares this position and urges the Colombian government to permit entry to Venezuelans seeking protection in Colombia. Enabling safe and orderly passage at the border would reduce the risks of transit through the trochas and allow the government to better manage and respond to the public health crisis.

The Colombian authorities and UN agencies have also expressed concern over rising levels of xenophobia and discrimination against Venezuelans. Some Colombians have protested what they see as Venezuelans flouting quarantine orders and receiving special assistance. An increase in social tensions is likely to complicate Venezuelans’ ability to access critical support during the pandemic, as well as their opportunities for future integration.  

A Canary in the Coal Mine: Venezuelans Driven Back

The collective impact of these trends has been so severe on Venezuelans inside Colombia that tens of thousands have returned to Venezuela. In the first three days after the border closure, about 27,000 Venezuelans who were living close to the border crossed back into Venezuela. Others began to make the trip from farther away. On April 4, 2020, around 600 Venezuelans arrived in Cúcuta on more than 20 buses. While it was not immediately clear who had organized the transport, reports suggest that some Venezuelans contracted the buses themselves, pooling what resources they had left. Others, however, had their travel organized by local authorities in municipalities eager to see them leave.

Faced with mass movements toward the border, the Colombian government opened “humanitarian corridors” to allow Venezuelans to return to Venezuela. They permit passage at crossing points in the Norte de Santander and Arauca departments in the northeast and La Guajira department on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. More than 25,000 Venezuelans have returned through these channels since April 2020. In Cúcuta, authorities allowed the CENAF to re-open to ensure that those crossing back into Venezuela could access critical aid and undergo medical checks while waiting to return.

Thousands more continue to attempt the trip. However, some now find themselves blocked en route by any of several factors, including the migration agency’s enforcement of transportation restrictions on unauthorized buses, local authorities unwilling to let Venezuelans pass through their towns, and congestion at border crossings. The Colombian government has discouraged people from returning on foot. In a statement on April 29, 2020, it warned that those violating lockdown orders or “starting their voluntary return process [without] coordination with the municipal authorities” may face “administrative and penal sanctions,” including deportation. 

Although the number of returnees is small relative to the estimated 1.8 million Venezuelans currently in Colombia, the mass movement of people back to a place known to be unsafe is an indicator of how desperate Venezuelans are in Colombia. Media reports, as well as Refugees International’s interviews with Venezuelans and government and UN officials in Colombia, indicate that homelessness and the lack of assistance needed to survive during the lockdown appear to be the primary push factors. Many Venezuelans left homes and relatives behind in Venezuela to which they can return. Venezuelans with whom the Refugees International team spoke in Colombia explained, “it is better to be hungry with a roof over your head than without.”

“The mass movement of people back to a place known to be unsafe is an indicator of how desperate Venezuelans are in Colombia”

Some returning Venezuelans, they added, hope that the political situation in Venezuela will improve, especially if the Trump administration’s intensified pressure campaign succeeds. Meanwhile, Maduro is capitalizing on their return, claiming it demonstrates the popular support he enjoys and the strength of his regime. However, there are no indications of such support nor improved conditions in Venezuela. Indeed, Maduro is quashing dissenting voices who speak out about the country’s lack of preparedness to address the health emergency. Those with whom Refugees International spoke confirmed reports that it is the dire nature of Venezuelans’ situation in Colombia—and perhaps some misplaced hope—that is driving them back, despite what they know of the conditions that await them.

“It is the dire nature of Venezuelans’ situation in Colombia—and perhaps some misplaced hope—that is driving them back, despite what they know of the conditions that await them”

A Risky Return

The Colombian government has justified its efforts to facilitate returns by warning that risks to Venezuelans and Colombian communities would be greater if individuals had to walk to the border and attempt to cross irregularly. However, sharing the concern of other partners in the GIFMM, UNHCR and IOM do not support these returns. One UN representative stressed to Refugees International that the reverse migration not only undermines efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus but brings individuals back to an unsafe country. As a result, the agencies limit their engagement to providing humanitarian aid to Venezuelans who have already arrived at the border in Colombia and are waiting to cross. They are compelled to help ensure some protections for Venezuelans in their critical state.

Safe arrival at the border is not a guarantee of immediate return—Venezuelans often must wait days before crossing back. The two governments have agreed to keep the corridor open for limited hours and permit just several hundred people to return each day, allowing time for them to conduct multiple health checks and make quarantine arrangements. While they wait in Colombia, Venezuelans have only limited access to shelter, food, healthcare or any other humanitarian care, despite the resumption of some operations at the CENAF. Now that more people are gathering and waiting to cross, the government must facilitate humanitarian groups’ ability to operate, and donors must provide additional resources to match the increased needs of Venezuelans in the border area.

Contrary to their hopes, returnees are unlikely to find better conditions once they have arrived in Venezuela. The country is already mired in crisis and poorly equipped to respond to a pandemic. Gas shortages impede the transport of medicines. Testing for COVID-19 is limited to one lab in Caracas. The Maduro regime continues to downplay the severity of the pandemic. Actual cases are likely much higher than the official count of 749 and 10 related deaths confirmed as of May 20, 2020. Prior to the pandemic, the health care system in Venezuela had largely collapsed. In one year, maternal mortality increased in Venezuela by 65 percent. In 2018, nine out of 10 Venezuelans living with HIV did not have access to treatment. Hospitals operate without consistent access to electricity or running water and with few medicines and limited supplies. One third of the 66,000 doctors in Venezuela have left.

“Venezuelans confront this tragic reality almost immediately upon their return.”

Venezuelans confront this tragic reality almost immediately upon their return. Although the government requires returnees to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival before they can continue home, it has failed to provide adequate shelter for them to do so. Recently returned Venezuelans wait by the hundreds at bus stops in Venezuelan border cities before the Venezuelan military places them into quarantine. Once there, they are stuck in abysmal and unsanitary conditions. About 2,100 Venezuelans in Táchira State, where they enter from Cúcuta, are isolating in abandoned schools and old government buildings where space is crowded and there is not enough food or water. People are packed ten to twenty to a room, contrary to the social distancing that public health experts advise.

Few believe that these returns are sustainable. Colombian government officials anticipate that those returning to Venezuela during the pandemic will try to go back to Colombia once the public health crisis abates. Others expect some who cannot even reach their homes to want to return immediately. Their deteriorating conditions in the interim will either add pressure on a Venezuelan system that cannot respond, or on the Colombian system to which they return.   

The Colombian Government’s Response

The Colombian government recognizes that its response to the pandemic must include Venezuelans. On March 26, in light of the decision to close migration services offices, the government announced it would suspend expiration terms and processing deadlines for migrant permits and documents for the duration of the health crisis. This reduces the risk of detention or deportation for Venezuelans without valid papers. The government has also worked with the UN and NGOs through the GIFMM mechanism to respond to Venezuelans’ changing needs in the context of the pandemic. For example, it has facilitated the use of cash-based assistance to help Venezuelans pay rent and purchase food.

The government sought to mitigate the most direct health risks to Venezuelans. In March 2020, it expanded Venezuelans’ access to health insurance and ensured that all Venezuelans—like all Colombians—have access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Around 188,000 Venezuelans in Colombia are already enrolled in the public health insurance scheme. Through its response, the government also committed to immediately enroll those who have special stay permits (Permiso Especial de Permanencia—PEP) but had failed to register with an insurance provider—a move that stands to benefit hundreds of thousands more. Since May 2017, Venezuelans have had the right to free emergency medical care at public hospitals in Colombia, regardless of their migration status. The government recently clarified that COVID-19-related care qualifies as such “emergency” treatment.

“In early April, the government released a detailed six-point action plan designed to ensure that Venezuelan forced migrants are included in Colombia’s pandemic response.”

In early April, the government released a detailed six-point action plan designed to ensure that Venezuelan forced migrants are included in Colombia’s pandemic response. Ambitious in its scope, the plan calls for humanitarian-sensitive border management, expanded access to healthcare, specialized assistance for vulnerable groups, targeted support for hard-hit cities, and improved coordination across all actors involved in the response. The plan also calls on donors and international aid groups to adapt their pre-COVID-19 relief efforts to respond to the pandemic. Going forward, the government rightly flags three main challenges: 1) the threat of rising xenophobia; 2) the need for shelter for Venezuelans; and 3) the imperative to begin economic recovery and integration as soon as possible.

The Colombian government is to be congratulated for taking a comprehensive and inclusive approach to the Venezuelan population as part of its pandemic response. There are, however, at least four additional areas where a more concerted action is needed to realize the plan’s full potential. The first major issue is growing friction between the national authorities and their local counterparts. Local officials, including in Bogotá and Soacha, have balked at expectations to provide for Venezuelans given their limited budgets. These authorities argue that they cannot implement the policies set by the national government if it does not provide them the budget to do so.

In addition, memories are fresh of anti-government protests that swept the country in 2019. Local elected officials are therefore reluctant to be seen as helping foreigners at the expense of their own citizens. These tensions explain why some local authorities have blocked Venezuelans’ entry into their cities or even helped organize their transportation to the border. Although the national government has since stepped in to provide some additional support, its resources are also limited. Its need for international support is therefore only growing.

Second, the rights that displaced Venezuelans in Colombia have on paper are often not realized in practice. For example, many Venezuelans are unable to access healthcare. Although Colombia has improved its health infrastructure in recent years, corruption and disparities between regions’ capacity continue to plague the system. Facilities in Colombia’s less developed border regions have struggled to accommodate the arrival of so many Venezuelans with critical medical needs. The government has yet to compensate many public hospitals for the free services they are required to provide, leaving them in significant debt. Moreover, some Venezuelans report that health workers discriminate against them and turn them away. Others are simply afraid or unaware of their rights to access care.

“The rights that displaced Venezuelans in Colombia have on paper are often not realized in practice.”

Despite the government’s efforts to expand insurance coverage to more Venezuelans during the pandemic, many remain without. In a recent GIFMM rapid assessment, 221 households (30 percent) reported having a family member who needed medical treatment since the lockdown, of which 67 percent said they had not received adequate care. Of those, 34 percent reported that at least one reason was that they are not affiliated with the national healthcare system. The result is that a large population is likely to fall through the cracks of any public health surveillance effort and thereby undermine the government’s ability to track and prevent the spread of the virus.

Marginalized groups and undocumented Venezuelans generally have more difficulty accessing their rights and adequate care. The government’s plan does include attention, such as food distribution, for the “vulnerable population” of migrants and host communities who fall outside the state’s social programs. However, it specifies only the support provided to children and adolescents. The government should ensure that indigenous groups are among those who qualify for additional assistance regardless of their migration status. 

Third, the government’s plan also mentions that measures to accelerate degree validation for Venezuelans with medical backgrounds are under consideration. This would be an important step to strengthen the country’s response to the virus. President Duque had, in fact, announced a decree to this effect on March 24, 2020. However, medical professional associations and unions protested with such force that the government backtracked within 24 hours. The government’s commitment to finding alternative means of allowing Venezuelan medical professionals to contribute to the COVID-19 response is encouraging. UNHCR reported on May 18, 2020 that Venezuelans with validated medical credentials can work as doctors and nurses and that the Ministry of Health continues to work with the Association of Health Professionals to recruit more health workers into the system. The government should quickly move forward with ideas to expand and accelerate the opportunities trained Venezuelan health professionals have to contribute their skills to the response—and beyond. Plans should be informed by good practices in countries like Argentina and Chile and some U.S. states that have expedited degree validation processes or authorized hiring foreign-certified medical workers whose credentials have not yet been validated in the host country.   

Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge to an inclusive pandemic response in Colombia remains the lack of resources. The government has expressed its commitment to carrying out an inclusive response but cannot realize its plans without additional funding. Nor can it empower local authorities on the front lines to meet the needs of the Venezuelans living in their communities.

The Missing Piece: Colombia’s Resource Restraints 

In March 2020, the United States announced an additional $8.5 million of humanitarian aid to help Colombia respond to the coronavirus. The EU announced €9 million (approximately $9.97 million) of funding to the Pan-American Health Organization and International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to respond to the pandemic in Venezuela and neighboring countries. However, funding to address the needs of Venezuelans during and beyond the immediate health crisis remain insufficient.

Indeed, funding shortfalls were among the most acute strategic failings of the international response to the Venezuelan displacement crisis well before the current pandemic. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP) for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela developed by the R4V Regional Platform has been dramatically underfunded—in 2019, donors provided just 52 percent of the funds needed. For 2020, finance requirements were originally nearly twice as high—around $1.35 billion for the region and $739.2 million for Colombia alone. Five months into the year, the response was just 3.5 percent funded.

Now, the public health crisis has increased both the level of need and the difficulty of fundraising. In April 2020, the R4V Regional Platform began a review of the 2020 Refugee and Migrant Response Plan to reassess activities and financing requirements in light of the additional challenges the pandemic creates. In Colombia, the GIFMM’s Joint Rapid Needs Assessment for COVID-19 was a critical first step to understand Venezuelans’ changing priorities and inform this process. The UN included its revised targets and financial requirements in the second edition of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 (GHRP), “reflecting the alignment of the two response mechanisms.”

The global update, published on May 7, 2020, indicates that humanitarian financing requirements for the regional response now total $1.41 billion, up from $1.35 billion. Of that, $438.81 million accounts for COVID-19-related efforts and $968.8 for “adjusted non-COVID-19” initiatives. The updated RMRP 2020 provides country and sector breakdowns. It establishes that financial requirements for Colombia, alone, have risen to $782.26 million, with $296.77 million for COVID-19-related efforts. In addition, the number of “people in need”—including migrant and host populations—has nearly doubled, from 1.77 million to 3.22 million.

In light of these greater challenges, the Colombian government has renewed its pleas for international support. Even with additional COVID-19 relief, contributions received amount to just 4 percent of the new total appeal. The United States has by far been the largest contributor to the response for displaced Venezuelans in the region. In 2019, it made 76 percent of the contributions to the RMRP. Meanwhile, funding from the European Union’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) amounted to just 5 percent of total contributions.

Thus far in 2020, the United States has contributed $20.2 million and ECHO just $3.4 million of the $52.4 million received by May 11, 2020. In late 2019, the EU indicated it would organize a pledging conference to raise funds in 2020—a plan it later suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on May 15, 2020, officials announced that they would move forward with a virtual donors conference—the first of its kind—on May 26, 2020. The EU and Spanish government will coordinate the conference with support from UNHCR and IOM and participation from more than 40 countries, UN agencies, international financial institutions, and civil society representatives. This innovative move reflects officials’ recognition that solutions cannot wait for governments to lift social distancing measures. Participating entities must seize the opportunity to make generous contributions to finance the response for displaced Venezuelans and their host communities. 

The GIFMM Rapid Assessment reveals how displaced Venezuelans’ needs have evolved. About 95 percent of households surveyed cited food as a priority need; 53 percent cited shelter; and 45 percent cited a source of income. Thus, not only has the amount of need grown significantly, but immediate humanitarian relief dominates the requirements. This is reflected in the revised RMRP. Initially, financial requirements for socioeconomic integration efforts were second only to health-related programming. Now, health remains the highest priority, with food security and nutrition coming second, and integration third. In this way, the GIFMM’s revised set of programming more closely resembles the balance at the start of the displacement crisis, when aid groups prioritized emergency relief over socioeconomic integration efforts.

Even as the pandemic shifts aid priorities towards immediate humanitarian response, senior officials in Colombia continue to emphasize to Refugees International that they must keep future needs in mind. They warned that Venezuelans’ present loss of livelihoods and educational opportunities, coupled with the broader economic effects of the pandemic and rising xenophobia, will only make development-oriented responses both more critical, and more challenging, moving forward.  

“Venezuelans’ present loss of livelihoods and educational opportunities, coupled with the broader economic effects of the pandemic and rising xenophobia, will only make development-oriented responses both more critical, and more challenging, moving forward.”


Ultimately, mitigating the pandemic’s human, social, and economic costs will take more aid, to more people, who are more vulnerable—including Colombians. The United States and the international community have the potential to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and promote the wellbeing of Venezuelans and Colombians by enabling the government to carry out its inclusive approach. Ensuring that adequate safeguards are in place for Venezuelan refugees and migrants will allow them to remain in rather than forcing them back to a more dire situation.


  • The United States government should increase its financial support to Colombia for hosting displaced Venezuelans. In light of the GIFMM’s review of its 2020 activities and financial requirements, the United States should increase its contributions to the RMRP in accordance with the needs identified. In supporting its key ally, the United States has a critical interest and role to play—not just for the wellbeing of the Venezuelan and Colombian people, but for the stability of the region as a whole.
  • The European Union (EU) and other members of the international community must increase support to address the needs of displaced Venezuelans. The EU must provide a more rigorous response to the Venezuelan displacement crisis, substantially increasing its contributions to the RMRP to enable host countries like Colombia to support displaced Venezuelans during the pandemic and beyond. Donor states and institutions participating in the virtual donors conference should lead in making generous financial contributions to the RMRP, informed by the assessments of UN agencies, civil society, and host country governments.
  • The Colombian government should continue to address the risks displaced Venezuelans face living inside Colombia, fulfilling the commitments in its six-point pandemic response plan. In addition to medical care, social and economic safety nets should be available to all those in Colombia, regardless of their nationality and immigration status. The government should account for the special needs of those who are particularly vulnerable, including women and girls and indigenous communities, to develop differentiated responses. The government should enforce the moratorium on evictions to guarantee that Venezuelans are allowed to remain in their homes. The Colombian government should work with international and local organizations to provide those already homeless with alternative, adequate shelter.
  • The Colombian government should work with local authorities to ensure support for displaced Venezuelans in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policies set at the national level must be accompanied by funding for their implementation at the local level. They should take into account the scale and nature of need in discrete locales and the capacity to respond there. In particular, the government should ensure that specialized services are available in border regions and municipalities where large Venezuelan populations settle.
  • The Colombian government should prioritize plans to accelerate degree validation for Venezuelans with medical backgrounds. This would be an important step to strengthen the country’s overall capacity to respond to the pandemic for Colombians and Venezuelans alike. As part of this effort, the government should continue to dialogue with the country’s associations of health professionals to address their concerns and seek constructive solutions. 
  • All stakeholders should enhance coordination and improve the flow of information to Venezuelan refugees and migrants and their host communities. The Colombian government must continue cooperating with UN agencies and civil society organizations to widely disseminate information about the coronavirus and the rights and benefits available to Venezuelans. Official communication should also reinforce messages of solidarity to battle xenophobia. While mandatory isolation remains in effect, stakeholders should use traditional and social media tools to educate both Venezuelans and Colombians, including health workers and landlords.


[1] The Cartagena Declaration is a regional instrument that was adopted on November 22, 1984 by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama. It is notable for going beyond the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in recognizing as refugees those individuals who “have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” [Full text]

Cover Photo: Staffers from Colombia’s Secretary of Health check Venezuelans while leaving Colombia and returning to their country. Photo by Schneyder MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images.