Colombia will give citizenship to more than 24,000 undocumented children of Venezuelan refugees born in the country, a rare humanitarian measure amid tightening migration policies elsewhere in the hemisphere.
“Today Colombia gives this message to the world: to those who want to use xenophobia for political goals, we take the path of fraternity,” President Iván Duque of Colombia said in a speech announcing the measure in Bogotá, the capital, on Monday.
The measure will grant a path to Colombian passports to babies born to Venezuelan parents on Colombian territory from August 2015 until August 2021, making it easier for them to access education and health care, and preventing an explosion of statelessness in Colombia.
“My baby boy will finally have a state that will take care of him,” said Katherine Fuentes, 28, a Venezuelan migrant in Bogotá who gave birth in Colombia ten months ago. “He will now be able to say proudly that he is from here, that the Colombian state accepted him.”
About four million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years to escape food shortages, blackouts and hyperinflation caused by the country’s catastrophic economic collapse — the largest migratory crisis in the region’s history, according to the United Nations. Neighboring Colombia has borne the brunt of the exodus, receiving about 1.4 million Venezuelans, according to Colombian government.
At first, Venezuelans found largely open borders to neighboring countries. But as their numbers swelled, they were met with growing anxiety about their impact on local resources. In Ecuador and Brazil, mobs attacked migrant shelters in towns where residents felt overrun. Some countries, including Peru and Chile, have tightened entry requirements for Venezuelans in the past year, to protect local wages and avoid populist backlashes.
Colombia has bucked the trend, keeping its borders open to Venezuelan migrants despite growing pressure on social services and an increasing number of xenophobic outbreaks. Colombian officials have argued that closing its porous 1,400-mile border with Venezuela will only boost human trafficking and provide new revenue streams to guerrillas and armed gangs operating in those areas.
Venezuela’s economic collapse has decimated the country’s administrative capacity, leaving tens of thousands of its citizens who left unable to get identification documents for children who were born abroad.
More recently, migrants have been affected by a decision taken in January by the United States, Colombia and about 50 other nations to recognize a leader of the opposition, and not Mr. Maduro, as the country’s legitimate leader, which further slashed Venezuela’s consular services.
Colombia is among the few countries in the region that does not grant automatic citizenship to people born within its borders; it ordinarily requires at least one parent to be a legal resident.
“No country should have kids growing up without access to health care and education, or a chance of a decent life,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, who closely studies Colombian migration. “Colombia has found a way of dealing with that.”
The United Nations and human rights groups applauded Mr. Duque’s decision. “This measure represents a major advance in guaranteeing children’s rights,” the United Nations said in a statement on Monday.
Mr. Duque’s liberal migration policies, however, are coming under growing economic and political strains. These pressures are tearing at the centuries-long solidarity between the two countries, which began their post-colonial history as a single nation.
Polls show that a majority of Colombians support tightening entry and welfare benefits for Venezuelans. Attacks against migrants are also on the rise. Last month, businesses in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga received pamphlets threatening attacks for hiring Venezuelan migrants.
Venezuelan migrants have increased Colombia’s population by about 3 percent in the past three years, driving down employment and straining the national budget, according to a report last year by the World Bank.
The World Bank estimated that Colombia needed to invest about $900 million last year to meet the Venezuelan migrants’ welfare needs, which represent a major strain on regional governments’ finances. A campaign by the World Bank this year to help Colombia accommodate Venezuelan migrants raised only $32 million.
The financial and social challenges created by the growing refugee population is expected to increase. The Organization of American States estimates that the Venezuelan diaspora will double in the next two years, to eight million people.
Most of the new migrants, who increasingly include Venezuela’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, are expected to head for Colombia, the closest destination to those without savings or family connections farther away. The prospect of a Colombian passport for newborns may speed up that migration.
“We don’t want this measure to be a ‘call,’ we want to meet the international obligations Colombia has with these children,” said Felipe Muñoz, Mr. Duque’s envoy to the Venezuelan border. “There are risks in these policy decisions, but what’s clear is that we have to take measures to have orderly migration.”