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Venezuela crisis spills over into Colombia

Today Colombia is faced with one of the biggest migration crises in the world. As Venezuela continues to plummet to the depths of depression, roughly 35,000 Venezuelans cross the Colombian border daily in pursuit of survival. Fifteen months into the controversial peace treaty which ended 52 years of civil war, Colombia remains a socially and politically vulnerable nation. An immigration crisis of global proportions represents an unprecedented challenge and threatens the peace that took decades to achieve. 

One-way migration patterns changing

For decades Colombia was the source of regional instability in Latin America. Its 52-year armed conflict resulted in the deaths of over 220,000 and the displacement of 7.6 million people. Venezuela, which once enjoyed Latin America’s highest growth rates, lowest levels of inequality, and possessed the region’s healthiest democracy, received the majority of Colombian emigrants.

Today the political climate in both countries is vastly different. Since 2016, Colombia has entered a peace process with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels which has seen the insurgency organisation enter the political system. Simultaneously, the country has enjoyed economic growth with increases in private consumption and investment.

In stark contrast, economic and political turmoil has created a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, unemployment, soaring crime, political oppression, amongst other factors, have created a population exodus in the once-wealthiest country in Latin America. In order to survive, thousands cross the Simon Bolivar bridge daily to the Colombian border town of Cucuta. As Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro aims to further consolidate his political power, there is no end in sight to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

Colombia’s global challenge

Colombia’s immigration predicament resonates with developments in other countries: with 700,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh and 600,000 Syrians in Germany, the 550,000 Venezuelan refugees in Colombia underscore Venezuela’s plight and the challenges that the Colombian authorities face. According to Joel Millman, a spokesman for the United Nations’ migration agency, “by world standards Colombia is receiving migrants at a pace that now rivals what we saw in the Balkans, in Greece, in Italy in 2015, at the peak of [Europe’s] migrant emergency.” In fact, last year Colombia sent a team of officials to Turkey to examine its management of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Colombia’s lure for Venezuelan migrants is three-fold: the majority cross the border in order to obtain medicine and food and return on the same day; some remain in Colombia and head for cities such as Bogotá, Bucaramanga y Barranquilla in pursuit of long-term opportunities; and many use Columbia as a gateway to other countries.  Illustrative of the spiralling effect of Venezuela’s situation across Latin America, there are now growing Venezuelan communities in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Ecuador. The numbers entering Ecuador via Colombia’s southern border accelerated from 32,000 in 2016 to 231,000 in 2017.

Bogota’s reaction to the crisis has been supportive but faces increasing limits. Conscious of the humanitarian crisis across the border and the mass migration of Colombians to Venezuela during different times, President Santos acknowledged that Colombians “should also be generous to Venezuelans.”  The Colombian government has provided 1.3 million migrants with a special migrant card, which permits travelling across the border in order to acquire essentials such as food and medicine. However, as the migration crisis deepens, the Colombian president has announced migratory restrictions and is pleading for international aid and assistance.

Risk factors

Given Colombia’s recent history and the gravity of the Venezuelan situation, the migration crisis poses a diverse range of risks for Colombia’s political leadership.

Mass migration threatens to increase political instability and social conflict in Colombia only fifteen months after the signing of the peace treaty with FARC rebels. Since the agreement, social unrest in Colombia’s rural community has reflected division surrounding the controversial peace process. The government’s failure to adequately implement rural reforms for communities in previously-controlled FARC territory has curtailed support for the current peace deal and has contributed towards the depreciating approval rating of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

According to The International Verification Commission on Human Rights, Colombia has only implemented 5% of its comprehensive rural reforms. As the Venezuelan migration crisis becomes a growing priority for the government, it is unlikely that much progress will occur on rural reforms before a new president is elected on May 27. Such setbacks will further alienate Colombian society that feels excluded from a peace treaty that faces ongoing scrutiny. In addition, Bogota’s attention to Venezuela’s ”humanitarian crisis” will likely question where the government’s priorities lie in the eyes of communities under previous FARC authority.

Criminal organisations operating across the sprawling border of 1370 miles with Venezuela are benefitting from mass migration. Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) has succeeded in attracting desperate Venezuelans who make the journey across to Colombia. According to the Colombian Defence Minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, an increasing number of Venezuelans have joined the Marxist guerrilla and assist in carrying out attacks in Colombia. Villegas stated that ”Colombian and Venezuelan members of the ELN engaged in both terrorist activity and attacks against the [Colombian] population” and it represents an ”enormous” concern.  On January 27 the ELN blew up a police station in Barranquilla killing seven police officers.

Furthermore, the exodus of Venezuelans to Colombia has created tense diplomatic relations which will likely hinder regional cooperation in reaching a solution to the migration crisis. Speaking in Cúcuta on February 8, President Santos again blamed Nicolas Maduro and his government for the migration crisis as Venezuela refuses to accept humanitarian aid. In contrast, Maduro has accused Bogota of being involved in an international conspiracy to ravage Venezuela’s economy and seek regime change. He has also accused the Colombian authorities of xenophobia towards Venezuelan migrants. As the crisis deepens, political cooperation between the two countries appears more elusive and mercurial: this will have the effect of delaying a viable solution.


Colombia faces renewed challenges as the numbers of Venezuelans heading towards the border increases. On May 27 Juan Manuel Santos’s eight years of presidency will end and Colombians will have a new president. According to a recent poll, former guerrilla and leftist candidate Gustavo Petro is leading the race as the popularity of the ruling party has dwindled. Regardless of the path Colombians chose to follow, the migration crisis and its challenges will remain unresolved as long as Venezuelans are pushed towards the Colombian border. Thus, finding a solution to the Venezuelan crisis is a vital objective for Colombia too.

This article first ran on Global Risk Insight and was written by Niall Walsh.