Venezuelan crisis: Stateless children facing limbo in Colombia

Colombia says it will claim the offspring of refugees born within its borders. But can Bogota afford to be generous?

by
    Children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia from August 19, 2015 onward are to be given Colombian citizenship [Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images]
    Children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia from August 19, 2015 onward are to be given Colombian citizenship [Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images]

    Bogota, Colombia - Around 25,000 children recently born in Colombia are not yet citizens of the South American nation.

    These young people are caught in legal limbo when neither one of their parents is a Colombian national, in large part because Venezuela never supplied proper identity documents for them.

    Colombian President Ivan Duque announced earlier this month that these stateless children will be allowed to apply for Colombian citizenship even without the necessary documents, but said that the decision may strain Colombia's already tight budget.

    "It hurts us that many children of Venezuelan fathers and mothers have been born in our country and have not been able to enjoy any nationality," said Duque.

    Venezuela's embattled government "has simply stopped providing consular service", Duque added.

    Some diplomatic posts - such as the mission in Colombia - have no operational support from Caracas because they are now controlled by the shadow government of self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido, rather than Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. This means many consulates are unable to issue birth certificates.

    A lack of paper to print passports and other documents further complicates matters at public offices within Venezuela.

    Venezuelan nonprofit organisation CECODAP, which runs community learning centres, estimates that 250,000 children born in Venezuela do not have sufficient identity documents.

    The social justice group also says that more than 32,000 children born in Caracas last year did not get their birth certificates, which means they cannot obtain a passport or other means of establishing their citizenship. 

    Further complicating matters is both the lack of resources at consulates and the rampant confusion among diplomatic officials about which administration - Guaido or Maduro - is in charge.

    Stateless in Colombia

    During the last four years, Venezuelan migrants gave birth to almost 25,000 children in Colombia. Many of those parents had no intention of permanently settling in Colombia, and without Venezuelan passports for their children, they are stranded.

    For most, the only identification they have is a Colombian birth certificate. Until this week, that worked only as an identity document, but could not be used to apply for Colombian citizenship.

    Oscar Dario Perez, a congressman from the ruling Democratic Centre party, told Al Jazeera that Colombia has gone to great lengths to accommodate the new arrivals.

    "We had to modify the fiscal rules to [allow for] an increased deficit, precisely because of migration," said Perez. "The humanitarian issue is above economic considerations and we agree with President Duque about this initiative."

    The Colombian government estimates there are 1.4 million Venezuelans living in the country.

    "They have generated costs in health, education, public services, housing, [and] in all social expenditures," said Perez. "According to some experts, the cost of Venezuelan immigrants is reducing GDP [gross domestic product] by a half a point."

    In early August, Colombia's central bank reduced the country's growth forecast for 2019 to three percent, down from 3.5 percent.

    But according to Perez, the decision to grant citizenship to the Venezuelan "dreamers" will not deepen the economic impact on Colombia.

    "Whether they have Colombian nationality or Venezuelan nationality - or neither - now the state is taking care of these children's basic needs," said Perez.

    'Best interests of children'

    Since last April, Venezuelan children have been allowed to attend public schools in Colombia. 

    The average annual cost of a public school student is 2,083,417 Colombian pesos ($610). About 7.7 percent of the government budget goes to preschool, primary and secondary education for 7.9 million youths.

    The flood of immigrants is also straining the healthcare system. On average, Colombia spends about 1,075,000 Colombian pesos ($315) per year on healthcare for every citizen up to 14 years old. So the flow of Venezuelan migrants is adding to these costs as well.

    "Last year the government exhausted the resources it had in the Disaster and Emergency Prevention Fund," said Mauricio Toro, a congressman with the opposition Green Alliance party.

    "[Colombia] had to create - through the National Development Plan - a mechanism that allowed mayors and governors to get additional resources to address the crisis of Venezuelan migration, including the needs of these young people," he told Al Jazeera.

    According to Toro, the Colombian government has spent about 145 billion Colombian pesos ($42m) looking after 66,000 Venezuelan minors living in the country. Those born in Colombia will benefit most from Duque's decision.

    For his part, Juan Carlos Galindo, head of the Colombian National Registration Office, underlined the importance of granting Colombian nationality to Venezuelan migrants who hope to attain it.

    "It is imperative for the state to prevent children from being stateless," he said. "All measures taken by public or private social welfare institutions will prioritise the best interests of children."

    'Feeling of solidarity'

    Meanwhile, Duque has called for the international community to get more involved and help manage the fallout from the Venezuelan crisis. 

    "The international community lacks a lot, when compared to the attention and help given in other similar situations, in other parts of the world," he said. "Colombia continues to work with determination. But it also requires that the world not be indifferent to the ravages of the dictatorship in Venezuela."

    During Monday's press conference, Duque said Colombia is showing the world that empathy trumps financial considerations.

    190805170758858

    "Although we have a per capita income of less than $8,000 - much lower than that of European countries that have faced migration crises - we know how to convert fraternity into a feeling of solidarity," he said.

    But Colombia's ability to provide for refugees is nearing the breaking point.

    Ecuador, Colombia's southern neighbour and another country along the way for Venezuelans trying to reach the far southern part of the continent, is planning to enforce stronger visa requirements for Venezuelans - a decision that could leave thousands more Venezuelan migrants stranded in Colombia.

    Ecuador has spent more than $74m on the Venezuelan migration crisis.

    US President Donald Trump is intensifying pressure against the Venezuelan regime. On Monday, he signed an executive order freezing the assets of Venezuela's government within the United States. 

    Toro agrees on the need for Colombia to make use of international cooperation.

    "This is one of the countries that has received the most migration and displacement of these people from Venezuela," said Toro.

    "That requires a joint effort by the international community and countries in the region, understanding that Colombia is not only a recipient but also a transit point for other countries also receiving Venezuelan migrants."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


    ABOUT THE AUTHOR