By MANUEL RUEDA, Associated Press
BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Colombia said Monday it will register hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees currently in the country without papers, in a bid to provide them with legal residence permits and facilitate their access to health care and legal employment opportunities.
President Iván Duque said that through a new temporary protection statute, Venezuelan migrants who are in the country illegally will be eligible for 10-year residence permits, while migrants who are currently on temporary residence will be able to extend their stay.
The new measure could benefit up to one million Venezuelan citizens who are currently living in Colombia without proper papers, as well as hundreds of thousands who need to extend temporary visas.
President Duque announced the protection measure in a stately government palace in Bogota while standing with Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque told a room full of ambassadors and diplomats, who were invited to witness the announcement.
Grandi said the new policy would improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of impoverished people and called it an “extraordinary gesture” of humanity, pragmatism and commitment to human rights.
Colombia’s government estimates that 1.8 million Venezuelans are currently living in the country, and that 55% of them don’t have proper residence papers. Most have arrived since 2015 to escape hyperinflation, food shortages and an increasingly authoritarian government.
Duque said that registering these undocumented immigrants and refugees would benefit Colombia’s security agencies and would also make the provision of social services, including coronavirus vaccines, more efficient.
The government said Venezuelans who arrive legally in Colombia within the next two years will also be allowed to apply for temporary protection.
The new policy comes after Donald Trump signed an executive order in the last days of his presidency that halted deportations of tens of thousands of Venezuelans living in the United States.
Colombia’s new temporary protection statute will be implemented as migrants leaving Venezuela find it harder to settle in other South American countries, due to land border closures and growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
In Ecuador, hundreds of Venezuelans are currently stuck along the country’s southern border following Peru’s decision to send tanks and troops to the area to stop illegal border crossings.
Other popular destinations for Venezuelan migrants include Panama and Chile, which have imposed visa requirements that make it harder for Venezuelans to move to those countries.
According to the United Nations, there are 4.7 million Venezuelan migrants and other refugees in other Latin American countries after fleeing the economic collapse and political divide in their homeland. Colombia is home to more than a third of them.
Duque said that while Colombia’s decision will provide some relief, he did not expect it to stop the Venezuelan exodus.
“If we want to stop this crisis countries have to reflect about how to end the dictatorship in Venezuela,” he said. “We have to think about how to set up a transitional government and organize free elections.”