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Migration Insecurity in the Táchira (Venezuela) -Norte De Santander (Colombia) Border



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Ana Marleny Bustamante and Francisco Javier Sánchez Chacón. Ana is a Senior Researcher and Professor at the Center for Border and Integration Studies (CEFI), Universidad de los Andes (ULA), Venezuela. Francisco is an Associate Researcher and Professor at the Center for Border and Integration Studies (CEFI), Universidad de los Andes (ULA), Venezuela.

The Venezuelan exodus is the largest recorded refugee crisis in the Americas. The Organization of American States (OAS) has identified five causes: a complex humanitarian emergency, human rights violations, widespread violence, the collapse of public services, and economic collapse, all of which are closely linked to the political crisis in the country. While there may not be a war in the country, people reportedly flee because they fear for their lives. 

According to the Plataforma de Coordinación Intergerencial para Refugiados y Migrantes Venezolanos (R4V) and the OAS, there are about 5.6 million Venezuelan migrants around the world as of September 2021. Of these, as we have pointed out, 90% have left the country through the Venezuela border with Colombia (5.4 million), and 76% have crossed the Táchira-Norte de Santander (TNS) border region (3.9 million). This could be attributed to the accessibility of the region and the services available to the traveler. The Venezuela-Colombian border extends 2219km; of which, about 140km is the TNS region.

Source: Diario La Opinión, Colombia

Venezuelan migrants travel hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach the border crossing; hence, they are called “the walkers”. They walk because they do not have the economic resources to cover transportation costs. During the Covid-19 pandemic, resources have become scarcer but, faced with a dire situation in their country, they decide to make the perilous journey, as Manrique, Manrique, and Sánchez have explained.  In this context, the regular/irregular dichotomy must be re-problematised in light of the life-threatening situations faced by migrants and the poor official response.

Many migrants continue their trip to their final destination, which is mainly Colombia but also other countries in the continent and beyond.  Yet, many remain at the border region, either because they have exhausted their resources, lost their belongings on the way, or because they find they can make a living in the surroundings, as Acosta emphasizes. Both types of migrants suffer and fear for their lives in this increasingly overcrowded region. They fear every time they come across a government officer, a member of an irregular armed group -member of a guerrilla group-, or a simple racketeer because they all demand some kind of payment for letting them pass, stay, cross, work or live in the area. According to PARESConnectas and Manrique et al., they are forced to cross illegally by “trochas” or paths. Even though they are eligible to apply for refugee status in Colombia, the country does not have enough resources to cover their needs. In fact, as the OAS has stated, the Venezuelan migratory movement is the most underfunded in the world.

The TNS border region and the border crossing are particularly insecure for a number of reasons. First, the Colombian and Venezuelan governments broke up diplomatic and consular relations in February 2019 and, since then border crossing is illegal. As a result of the breakup of relations, the Venezuelan government blocked the gateways (international bridges) with containers. Nevertheless, a gradual closing had begun in 2015 when, alleging security reasons, the Venezuelan government deported more than 24,000 Colombians, living in shantytowns -called La Invasión and Linda Barinas- in San Antonio del Táchira.

Second, the legal crossing is allowed only for students and people with health problems, a revised connotation of humanitarian reasons. However, this crossing is infrequent as governmental officers close the border, either by a governmental directive or because violent disputes between gangs tend to occur in the surrounding areas and casualties may occur. In both cases, people do not cross the legal gateways and opt to use the “trochas” risking their lives even further.   

Third, there are national security issues that affect migrants along the Colombian - Venezuelan border, but especially in the TNS region. Some of the hazards include: a) The activity of Colombian guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) dissidents as Front 10 (Grupos Armados Organizados Residuales -GAOR-, in Spanish); b)  The activities of the remains of the Colombian paramilitary forces -autodefensas- such as Águilas Negras, Los Rastrojos and, other Colombian criminal bands (BACRIM, as in Colombian Spanish), as Francine Jácome pointed out; c) The action of Venezuelan violent criminal gangs such as The “Tren de Aragua” that also lurk in the region; d) Last but not least, Colombia is the largest cocaine producer, and most of its traffic occurs across the borders by transnational criminal groups as narcotraffickers

A manifestation of this insecurity is human trafficking, that is increasingly active in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander. Migrants that daily cross this border are prone to be the object of human trafficking -for labor slavery, prostitution, migrant smuggling, and children exploitation, among others. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in five South American countries, 21% of 4,600 Venezuelan respondents declared to have been forced to work without receiving any remuneration or were held against their will. 

And although, regrettably, migrants around the world face security issues and violations of human rights, in this case, this is compounded by the dispersed and uncoordinated safety network provided by multinational, international, and national humanitarian agencies in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has criminalised organizations that attempt to alleviate or inform migrant travelers as Human Rights Watch has mentioned. As a result, migrants lack the necessary information about their rights or their daily and usual concerns such as transportation, money exchange, lodging, human rights organizations in their path and destination, among others.

The insecurity issues that affect migrants and inhabitants in the TNS border region raise questions about how governments address the national and binational security. Insecurity in this border region also affects that of South Americans because it shows a lack of international cooperation and understanding of regional organizations to achieve a swift and peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan political crisis and its consequences in the region. The first step is to open formal legal routes to allow people to go, return, or migrate more safely. Colombia opened its side of the border in June 2021, but Venezuela refuses to do so. Secondly, or in parallel, governments must agree on information exchange on security and coordination between authorities (police, military, and intelligence together with home security). Thirdly, accessibility of information for migrants is crucial, and therefore, humanitarian and human rights organizations, even journalists, should not be harassed or prosecuted when doing their job

Finally, civil society through NGOs, think tanks, churches and other institutions, must monitor the situation on the ground to help these vulnerable migrants and expose the violations they endure to the wider world.

Note: This blog post was made possible thanks to the Cucuta Forum Members Support Plan from CRIES, Argentina.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bustamante, A. M. and Sánchez Chacón, F. J. (2021). Migration Insecurity in the Táchira (Venezuela) -Norte De Santander (Colombia) Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/migration [date]

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