Crossing the Border: The Consequences of Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis for the Colombia-FARC Peace Accords

As Colombia grapples with the implementation of its peace deal with the FARC rebel group, the regional context is rarely out of sight. The influx of Venezuelan refugees into Colombia, provoked by hyperinflation and a political crisis within Venezuela, has complicated matters for the government of Juan Manuel Santos. By placing strains on rural areas recovering from a history of civil conflict and increasing political uncertainty in the run-up to the May 2018 Colombian presidential elections, the Venezuelan crisis presents a challenge to a lasting peace in Colombia. 

The economic and political decline of Venezuela has resulted in the largest refugee crisis in modern Latin America. With as many as 4 million Venezuelans crossing into neighboring countries to escape from the economic mismanagement, disease, and political oppression of the Nicolas Maduro regime, the country is on pace to eclipse Syria’s 5.5 million person refugee crisis within the next year. Ian Bremmer of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group refers to the exodus as the world’s “least-talked-about” immigration crisis.

Colombia has been hit especially hard by the refugee crisis. The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Relations estimated around 550,000 Venezuelan citizens had entered Colombia by the end of 2017, approaching the 700,000 person population of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. To find out how to respond to this mass migration, Bogotá sent a delegation to Turkey in May 2017, meeting with policymakers at the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency and learning how Syrian refugee camps could provide a model for Colombia.

In this Feb. 23, 2018 photo, Venezuelan migrants pray before lunch at the “Divina Providencia” migrant shelter run by the diocese of Cucuta, in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. The diocese offers an average of 1000 meals a day for the migrants. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
The arrival of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia presents two threats to the implementation of the Colombia peace process. First, by placing economic strain on the already resource-poor Eastern regions of the country, the entry of refugees prevents the state from honoring its obligations to those harmed by the civil conflict. Second, by presenting the administration of Juan Manuel Santos with a difficult choice over whether to accept refugees, the crisis strengthens the political opponents of the FARC deal. 

The economic impact of Venezuelan refugees’ entry into Eastern Colombia poses a challenge to long term rural reforms. Although much of the focus on the Colombian government’s 2016 accord with FARC has been on dissolving armed groups and having them turn over their weapons, the terms of the agreement also include components for longer term peace. Land reform, aimed at reintegrating FARC members into the economy and alleviating the rural poverty that enabled rebel groups to emerge in the first place, is one such component. Despite the government’s best intentions to address the problems at the root of the Colombian civil conflict, these structural reforms have stalled. Joaquin Sanchez, commission chief of the International Verification Commission on Human Rights in Colombia, reported in February 2018 that only 5% of the integral land reforms had been completed. It is in this environment, where the needs of Colombian citizens are vastly underserved, that the government must accommodate a surge of refugees.

The Venezuelan refugee crisis also presents as challenge for the government of Juan Manuel Santos. Already sitting at an abysmal 14% approval rating, Santos faces a politically difficult choice as the Venezuela refugee crisis worsens. If his administration declines to build refugee centers and closes its borders, Santos will earn some support from organizations and businesses concerned with the welfare of rural Colombians, but he will leave hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans stranded without access to medical care, food, or basic needs. If the government constructs refugee camps, the policy could encourage more people to cross the border, provoking anti-Venezuelan sentiments that could fuel support for opposition politicians.

Santos’ dilemma is analogous to that of Angela Merkel on whether to welcome Syrian refugees in Germany. By appealing to humanitarian goals and opening Germany’s borders, Merkel catered support from the left. However, she also angered populist voters, who turned to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in unprecedented numbers in 2017. For his part, Santos has straddled the line on refugees, strengthening border security but also opening a temporary service center to be administered by the UN Migration Agency and the Red Cross.

Ivan Duque, presidential candidate with the Democratic Center party, marks his vote during legislative elections as his son makes faces at his family and members of the press in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, March 11, 2018. Colombia will hold presidential elections in May. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Although Santos is prevented by term limit from running in the May 2018 presidential election, his handling of the refugee crisis could contribute to the choice of his successor. There are three major candidates in the race. Leftist Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, and centrist Sergio Fajardo, a mathematics professor and former mayor of Medellín, have committed to build on the deal with FARC. Iván Duque, a prominent leader of the “No” campaign against the FARC peace deal, has promised to revisit the agreement and make substantial revisions if elected. Duque has raised issues with drugs crossing the “porous border” between Colombia and Venezuela; a backlash against Venezuelans entering the country would likely increase support for his candidacy. 

Colombia’s place in its region has a strong effect on what happens within the country. As the Colombian people choose their next president, decide whether to continue with the peace process, and embark on much-needed rural reforms, the consequences of the Venezuelan refugee crisis will weigh heavy.

Robert Carlson is a T’20 Undergraduate 

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