Posted on January 6, 2021

Large Venezuelan Migration Sparks Xenophobic Backlash in Colombia

John Otis, NPR, December 29, 2020

Just three days after crossing the border into Colombia to escape food shortages, joblessness and authoritarian rule in Venezuela, Alexander González says he’s shocked by the xenophobia of his adopted homeland.

“Colombians treat Venezuelans badly,” says González, 19, as he takes a breather in the Colombian town of Pamplona before setting off on foot for the capital of Bogotá. “They practically spit in our faces.”

Amid Venezuela’s worst-ever economic crisis, which is widely blamed on corruption and mismanagement by President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist regime, more than 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country.

The exodus began in 2014 and, since then, about 2 million Venezuelans have settled in neighboring Colombia, with smaller numbers moving to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America. Now, this massive influx of migrants and refugees is creating a backlash in Colombia, with some people blaming the newcomers for a host of problems, including rising crime, unemployment and the spread of COVID-19.

The message that Venezuelan migrants are no longer welcome comes from average Colombian citizens and powerful government officials alike. Last week, for example, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that undocumented Venezuelan migrants would not receive vaccinations for the coronavirus despite concerns from refugee agencies that this policy could lead to more infections.

“Of course they won’t get it,” Duque told a Bogotá radio station. “Otherwise we would have a stampede with the whole world crossing the border to get vaccinated.”

Research shows that Venezuelans in Colombia are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. But after a Venezuelan migrant stabbed to death a bus passenger in Bogotá in October, Mayor Claudia López declared: “I don’t want to stigmatize immigrants but there are some Venezuelans involved in crimes who are making our lives impossible.”

Meanwhile, local officials all across Colombia complain that they’ve been left largely on their own to deal with a flood of sick and impoverished Venezuelans. {snip}


But attitudes are changing now that the exodus of Venezuelans has become the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history and rivals the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. A recent Gallup poll showed that 69% of Colombians have an unfavorable perception of Venezuelan migrants.

Among those who have soured on Venezuelans are many residents and officials Pamplona. Home to 60,000 people and located on the main highway to Bogotá and other major cities, Pamplona has become a pit stop for migrants, with some 300 arriving here every day.

“Pamplona is overflowing with migrants and we have no way to deal with it,” says Humberto Pisciotti, the mayor of Pamplona, which is located near Colombia’s busiest border crossing with Venezuela. {snip}

Many beg for food at houses and restaurants or seek medical care at the town’s hospital. Some walk around without face masks. Due to the lack of a shelter for refugees, they sleep outdoors and bathe in rivers and streams.

To dissuade them from bunking down near their homes, some residents pour used motor oil on sidewalks and driveways while town officials have cordoned off parks with yellow tape. {snip}