In February, President Duque of Colombia announced that each and every Venezuelan living in Colombia will be granted protective status by the government. This is a huge breakthrough for the 1.7 million migrants living here. It is also a historic moment of recognition for Venezuelans, who are currently the world’s second largest displaced group.
As inflation and unrest mounted in neighboring Venezuela, entire communities were forced to leave their homes. Many walked across the border to Colombia, where only 40% held legal status. This posed a major barrier to accessing even basic social services and kept legal employment out of reach. IsraAID is one organization among many working to fill these gaps and ensure that communities are able to build a better future for themselves, but collaboration between public, private, and non-profit organizations is essential to truly provide the support that is needed.
This influx of new arrivals exacerbated ongoing challenges in Colombia. The country has an unemployment rate in the double digits, which increased dramatically during the pandemic. Limited resources in education, in health care, and in other social services buoyed xenophobia. People crossing the border arrive with serious medical concerns including high rates of malnutrition, while also coping with the emotional stress of leaving their home and rebuilding their lives.
This historic announcement is a gamechanger for our daily work here in Barranquilla, where our teams provide education services, psychosocial support, and livelihood opportunities for these communities. One major issue we faced previously was in providing job training for new arrivals: 60% of Venezuelans did not have the right to work legally. In light of this, we could only provide employment support for the minority who did hold work permits. This often left out those most vulnerable.
It may also affect the composition of our staff team itself. Employing members of displaced communities is a key part of IsraAID’s approach. Now, with legal status available to all Venezuelans, we may be able to hire more Venezuelan staff members than we would have before.
Another example is in education. Our Child Friendly Spaces have been operating for close to two years now, providing a transitionary framework for children before they start in Colombian schools. Previously, children who did not have legal documentation were not eligible for public school. While there were many success stories of overcoming this bureaucratic challenge—and we are incredibly proud of the 85% of our students who did start in public schools—there were always going to be children that would never be able to move on from our program.
The role of our Child Friendly Spaces is now more important than ever. In addition to the legal barrier facing Venezuelan children, enrolling in the public school system requires proof of previous grade completion. Many children from Venezuela were out of the formal education system for multiple years, which created a significant academic gap. Our Child Friendly Spaces’ targeted curriculum streamlines their preparation for the public school system. Now that all children will be legally eligible to enroll, our academic services are even more critical, and will be able to support even more children.
While this announcement will help to push forward integration, additional support is needed to leverage the immense potential it holds. Our teams are preparing to launch awareness raising campaigns to reach currently undocumented Venezuelans and help them step by step through the process to gain legal protection.
The other enormous challenge ahead of us is addressing the social and cultural aspects of this change. While legal integration is confirmed, social integration is not. Combating xenophobia and promoting diversity is critical in this moment—to build a better future for all in our communities. Now that Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia have been granted legal status, this work comes next. We at IsraAID Colombia are excited to play our part.