Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Immigration Injustice in Colombia: Beyond the Question of Borders

Over the following weeks, we will be covering immigration and border control in South and Central America, with posts on Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and Mexico, as well as the complex relationship between these countries. This new themed ongoing series has been organised by Ana AlivertiRimple Mehta and Andriani Fili, facilitated by Ritika Goyal, as part of their continuing work in expanding Border Criminologies in the Global South and building new networks and partnerships. While the issues highlighted in the posts affect millions of people, most discussions of border control focus upon realities in the Global North. This ongoing series attempts to fill this gap by presenting a view from the Global South. Do get in touch with us if you want to contribute a blog post in English or in Spanish.



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Allison B. Wolf. Allison is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Affiliated Faculty Center of Migration Studies Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.





On March 1, 2021, Colombia’s President, Ivan Duque, signed Decree 216 of 2021 giving Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia on or before January 31, 2021 the right to apply for Temporary Protective Status for up to ten years.  This protection would regularize these individuals and give them access to the formal economy, health care and public education. Given that over half of the nearly 1.8 million Venezuelans in Colombia are in irregular status, this will no doubt help many and the Colombian government can rightly ask for credit for doing more for this displaced population than most other nations in the Americas.

While I do not want to detract from the significance of this moment, I worry that it feeds an erroneous narrative that addressing immigration injustices primarily requires actions like Decree 216, to open borders, regularize people’s status, and augment admissions. While I agree with philosophers and legal scholars of immigration like Joseph Carens, Philip Cole, and Alex Sager that open borders may be part of immigration justice, the issue is broader than this. As Amy Reed-Sandoval has deftly shown, even documented immigrants and citizens of certain nations face immigration injustice because they are not perceived as such. This is because, as I have argued, immigration justice goes beyond questions about borders and admissions; immigration justice is fundamentally about identifying and resisting oppression in global and domestic contexts. Consequently, we should ask about the degree to which any policy related to immigration creates, reflects, or perpetuates oppression rather than stay focused on borders, admissions, and regularization policies per se.  Failing to do so obscures (or at least distracts from) the fact that even if Decree 216 were perfect (and it is far from it), it does nothing to alleviate the countless immigration injustices Venezuelan immigrants constantly endure, especially xenophobia and systemic violence. 

Anti-Venezuelan xenophobia is widespread in Colombia. A December Gallup poll found that most Colombians view Venezuelan migrants as a problem, with 69% viewing them “unfavorably” and accusing them of stealing their jobs and draining scarce social resources. It is near impossible for displaced Venezuelans, like Aldena, a single mother of three, to avoid being called the racial/ethnic derogatory slang for Venezuelan immigrants, veneco/veneca, hear her boss proclaim, “Venezuelans are useless,” or see “Fuera Venezolanos” or other graffiti portraying them as dirty invaders, violent criminals, prostitutes, and spreaders of disease on the walls of Bogotá neighborhoods. Venezuelan women are chastised for having children and constantly endure “men sexually harassing and verbally abusing them, attacking them as dirty foreigners and pressing them for sex while they work as waitresses or cleaners.” Social media is just as bad, filled with threatening memes and messages, like one picturing a man with a relieved expression on his face with the caption: “When you thought you ran over a dog but realized it was just a Venezuelan,” or the Twitter post saying: “Will pay a million Colombian pesos for a Venezuelan killed by rats.”  There was even a recent pamphlet circulating ordering everyone to fire Venezuelan immigrants and hire Colombians within 48 hours.  None of this is addressed by Decree 216.

We find similar concerns related to systemic violence, or violence targeting members of specific social groups or nations only because they are a member of those groups.  Like xenophobia, systemic violence is ubiquitous in the lives of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. In the border region, for example, anti-government and organized crime groups monitor the trochas (or informal border crossings) and commit “a range of abuses against civilians, including killings, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and forced displacement. Julia Zulver reports that men are often charged bribes in exchange for permission to cross and women must provide sex for payment if they do not have the money as well as being particularly vulnerable to being kidnapped, “required to cook, clean, harvest coca and sexually service male combatants.” This violence does not end at the border. To the contrary, police brutality, physical violence, and threats of extortion and kidnapping from criminal groups are pervasive in Venezuelan’s lives. In late October 2018, for example, a mob attacked Venezuelan homes in Bogotá in response to completely baseless rumors on social media that Venezuelan immigrants were kidnapping children. In the first week of May 2019 alone, three transwomen were shot by police in Valledupar and Venezuelan transwomen were victims of grave physical assaults in Bogotá.  More generally, Colombia’s Department of Legal Medicine reported that 233 Venezuelans were killed in Colombian territory in the first half of 2019. 

For Venezuelan women, the challenges are especially great, constantly withstanding harassment and sexual exploitation in exchange for food, water, medicine, personal hygiene products and other basic goods.  Girls and women are often victimized by trafficking networks and are vulnerable to sexual assault, rape, and feminicide with Esther Pineda reporting that “between April 2018 and April 2019, at least 22 femicides were committed against Venezuelan women in Colombian territory.” Red Feminista Antimilitarista found that since early 2018, there have been at least two femicides of Venezuelan migrant women in Colombia per month, with no sign that the trend is abating.  Again, Decree 216 – or any open border action alone do nothing to address this. 

Again, I salute Colombia for enacting Decree 216. But we should not let it distract us from other immigration injustices, like those just highlighted. Injustices like these, rooted in various forms of oppression will not be resolved by decrees or policies opening borders. So, while I hail Colombia’s good work, I hope it does not obscure the fact that we still have a long way to go to create just immigration systems for Venezuelan migrants in the Americas and around the globe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Wolf, A. B. (2021). Immigration Injustice in Colombia: Beyond the Question of Borders. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/04/immigration [date]

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