Venezuelan migrants in Colombia: the data that xenophobia does not count | International

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Venezuelan migrants eat inside a tent at a makeshift camp in Bogotá in June 2020.RAUL ARBOLEDA / AFP

In the last five years, Colombia has grown from hosting fewer than 100,000 Venezuelan citizens to more than 1.7 million. Today there are practically 1 in 25 people that one would come across on a walk through a Colombian city. Most arrived in the country in conditions that move between urgency and necessity, fleeing a situation of extreme crisis at their point of origin.

This process can only be described as a shock. It is for the country of arrival, with customs and institutional mechanisms put to the test: Colombia is not, has not been in recent decades, a place of reception. Neither his state nor his cities were prepared in advance for the reception. The citizenship, either, and perhaps that helps to understand that two thirds of the population remain in a position of rejection in front of the newcomers.

But it is also a shock — even greater — for those who arrive. They do not do it in a thoughtful, orderly migratory process oriented towards family prosperity; it is a flight from an unsustainable situation to a precarious one. In fact, a vast majority consider that they would be at risk if they return to Venezuela. What drives them is not prosperity, which becomes rather an elusive dream: it is to escape from the abyss.

Local politicians have little incentive to address these fears and concerns: migrants do not vote; At least, not while they do not have citizenship or their regularized residence does not reach five years (and in this case, they only vote in municipal or regional elections). And, on the other hand, they do have the temptation – and all the benefits of demagogy – to echo that rejection expressed by two-thirds of the national population: nothing could be easier than placing responsibility on external factors.

Several in Colombia have done it, but no one as decisively as the mayor of the capital. Claudia López has focused the shot on the crime. Already in November of last year she affirmed that "20% of the thefts that are being committed, of the arrests that we have made for the average theft in the city, are immigrants", a figure that according to her rose to almost half in those registered within Bogotá's TransMilenio transportation system. In February and March of this year he returned to the matter. "The facts show that a minority of Venezuelans, deeply violent, who kill to steal or for a requisition, are a factor of insecurity in our city," he said a week ago, and assured that it was not "a matter of theft. First they murder and then they steal. We need guarantees for Colombians ”.

The initial reaction of the media and progressive sectors concerned about the xenophobia of these comments has focused on trying to deny the data offered by the mayor, and her characterization that it is Venezuelan migrants who increase insecurity. But López does not misrepresent the numbers: he only uses those that suit him. Certainly, the criminal acts added by the Attorney General's Office show that 3.6% of those registered in 2020 were associated with a person of Venezuelan nationality: approximately the same proportion represents the set of Venezuelan migrants over the total Colombian population.

The three types of crime most clearly associated with migrants are theft, violation of sanitary or public health-related measures, and those related to narcotics. Not homicides, as López suggests. In fact, according to official data, Venezuelan migrants were more frequent victims than Colombian nationals of the main and most serious violent crimes.

In 2020, a Venezuelan woman in Colombia was twice as likely to die violently as a Colombian woman, according to data from Legal Medicine; a 39% higher risk of suffering intimate partner violence; 28% of being subjected to sexual violence. For both sexes, the probability of suffering any type of violence was 21% more for Venezuelans than for Colombians; Venezuelan men were 14% more likely to die in homicide than their host neighbors.

Data from a multinational survey focused on measuring the degree and forms of vulnerability among Venezuelan migrants, particularly those with problems to have a stable and adequate housing (almost all, really), point in a similar direction: one in four would have suffered some kind of aggression since he left his country. The most frequent is, paradoxically, the one they are so accused of: theft.

Here begins the analytical turn essential to fully understand the phenomenon: it is not a question of focusing the debate on crime figures in an abstract way, as if they occurred in the air, but of encompassing the entire context that surrounds them. The first and greatest bias in which the debate on the relationship between the migrant population and crime incurs is to frame them only on the side of the criminals, of the perpetrators. An approach anchored in reality should begin with the opposite intuition, which these data confirm: if we have hundreds of thousands of people urgently leaving their home, their trusted environment, jumping into the void, it seems plausible to fear for their integrity in a duty station that is not ready to offer them protections similar to those they enjoyed in the past.

Joining the margins

Almost two million people have arrived in precarious conditions, in just five years, to a deeply unequal middle-income country, with high rates of labor informality, already established criminal structures (which lead to a history of violence well above the average). world) and also lacks experience in the inclusion of migrants. Your stated needs are as varied as they are pressing.

But they can hardly satisfy them with incomplete integration, which occurs mainly in the (wide) margins of the Colombian system. Consider employment and education, basic mechanisms of inclusion. According to official data, the Venezuelan community in Colombia suffered at the end of 2019 twice in unemployment and informality, and three times as many young adolescents (12-15 years old) were working.

At the school level, one out of every two children under 18 (and over six) is out of school, in most cases due to problems beyond the control of families.

These are the numbers that draw the shock suffered by those populations that must leave their environment en masse, improvised and risky.

Claudia López herself admitted in November that the recruitment of migrants "is done by both Colombian and Venezuelan gangs." For them, there are hundreds of thousands of people who constitute both accessible labor in the absence of protection and opportunities, and available victims for exactly the same reason. In fact, in addition to the aforementioned crimes, there is another that stands out in the database of the Colombian Prosecutor's Office: the use of minors for criminal acts. The chains of precariousness are consolidated with the new population, which ends up integrated into those that already existed previously.

Pending integration

Colombian citizens are not alien to any of this: once the simplistic question of whether they are in favor or against migrants opens up to more specific nuances, negative prejudices are charged above all in the dimensions of poverty, the weight in social services and employment. Meanwhile, the opinions in favor of inclusive policies in health, education and even the facilitation of employment for migrants are majority or almost majority.

The recent massive regularization undertaken by the Colombian Government, which will offer a ten-year residence permit to the million people who remain without papers within the territory, is only a first step to modulate the double impact that a sudden, intense and migratory wave implies. marked by urgency. The data (once considered as a whole, and not piece by piece) presented here indicate that there are many more steps to be taken to ensure full, stable inclusion, which allows the benefits to emerge for all parties that migration can bring. The variety of opinions suggests, in any case, that there is more than enough space to make perspectives more flexible, highlighting this or that angle in the perceptions and applied policies. In this, public voices undoubtedly have a determining responsibility. Colombians are not unaware of it: according to a recent survey by the Venezuela Migration Project, 75% of them consider that the media does not convey a positive image of migrants.

When these public voices, particularly the elected representatives, refer only to one part of the story, when they decontextualize the indicators and focus exclusively on the link between migrant status and crime, they risk reinforcing the opposite dynamics: those of the exclusion. Votes, the feeling of being "close" to what "people" think in the short term with this type of speech, probably implies mortgaging integration in the future. Or, in other words: it implies refusing to deal with the reality that they must manage, and for which they were voted.

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