Colombian Immigrants Flee Venezuela As Economic Conditions Worsen

Anonymous crowd of people walking on city street
Colombian immigrants have long had a major presence in Venezuela, with thousands crossing the the country’s western border in the 1940s to escape a bloody civil war and benefit from the flourishing oil trade. This trend only became more popular at the height of the county’s oil boom in the 1970s, when Venezuela reported the highest gross domestic product per capita in South America, offering immigrants an excellent opportunity to earn enough money to send home. By the 1990s, sociologists estimated that 77% of the nation’s migrant population were Colombians, who typically worked in agriculture, construction and household services.

Now, however, as Venezuela’s economic struggles continue, thousands of Colombians are returning home, putting many of the country’s industries further at risk.While they are often viewed with contempt by Venezuelans, Colombian migrant workers have become one of the major supporting groups and main beneficiaries of Venezuela’s socialist policies since the 1990s. Free housing, education and health care turned many into fervent supporters of the late President Hugo Chávez, which translated into votes for his controversial ideas as the immigrants obtained citizenship. Today, there are an estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans of Colombian descent in the country, equal to about 16% of the population.

However, with the currency struggling and the nation’s GDP dropping, this level of support hasn’t extended to Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro. This isn’t uncommon among Venezuelans: studies show that 43% of voters are expected to choose the opposition in the next legislative election, while only 19% plan to choose government candidates.

However, the last straw for many Colombians was Maduro’s decision last year to ban remittances. Designed to help save dwindling foreign reserves and prevent default, this plan also significantly decreased Colombian workers’ ability to send money home. Previously, immigrants could send wages home at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar, which translated the minimum monthly wage into about $520. In comparison, the Colombian minimum wage is about $300. With the ban rendering them unable to support their families from afar, as many as 200,000 Colombian workers have left over the course of the past few years, in spite of Marxist guerrillas controlling much of the countryside and a high rate of poverty. Many aren’t even renewing their expired Colombian documents, choosing instead to simply pick up and leave.

But Colombians aren’t the only ones fleeing Venezuela: with conditions in the county growing ever worse, links with Colombia have become a source of pride and opportunity. In 2014, Colombian residency visas given to Venezuelan nationals rose 80% from 2013, making Venezuelan passport holders the biggest recipients of Colombian visas last year. The high rate of both native and Venezuelan immigrants has caused a number of concerns for the Colombian government, who are worried about an influx of unskilled workers straining already troubled public services and raising unemployment.

Meanwhile, Venezuela is reportedly experiencing the opposite situation: shops and offices near the border are reportedly empty, exacerbating the impact of the economic downturn. This has made it impossible for local homeowners to even replace their roofs; after all, a qualified, experienced crew that understands the correct installation of the metal roofing system is necessary to ensure that roofs and other architectural features will reach their full lifespan, and most construction workers are Colombian.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that many will stay: even 25,000 Colombian refugees who fled the guerrillas are expected to return home. Discrimination seems to be only worsening this situation: Maduro has blamed foreign smugglers for causing food shortages and other problems, deporting more than 2,000 immigrants as a result. Other workers have reported being abused by government workers, further fueling their exodus from an embattled nation that may need their help more than ever.